Programming classical music for the new culture (first post)

So now it’s time for a post about what kind of classical music a new audience might like. Which means an audience younger than the one we have now, and one that’s native to our changed culture, which (as I’ve noted in my last few posts) classical music hasn’t kept up with.

We have to think about this, because the audience we have now won’t be replaced by another one like it, by another audience that accepts the old view of what classical music is. Or at least there won’t be another old-style audience nearly as large as the current one.

But I made one careless statement, when (a few posts ago) I told  a story about a former girlfriend of mine, not a classical music fan, who asked — when I put on a Handel record — why classical music wasn’t more noir. And when I replaced Handel with Berg’s 12-tone Lulu Suite, said, “Yes, why doesn’t more classical music sound like that?”

I drew two conclusions from this, first that the new audience won’t be afraid of atonal music, and second, more radically, that this audience might demand atonal music. That second statement was careless. What I should have said is that the new audience is going to want classical music that sounds like it comes from our current culture. Or at least it will, if it’s going to embrace classical music as living art, and not just as something delightfully quaint (though in its own way cool).

Music from our current culture might be atonal (in film scores, for instance). And, atonal or not, it’s likely to be more dissonant than most of the classical masterworks, simply because harmony in all kinds of music today is mostly more dissonant, whether it’s two-fisted piano chords in jazz, added seconds or major sevenths when a cocktail pianist plays old pop standards, or clashing overtones that give three-chord rock an overlay of jangling noise.

But most of our music isn’t atonal, of course. And here it’s important to note that a new audience might not respond to a lot of what gets labelled as “contemporary music” inside the classical world. That’s because — as someone said in a comment to an earlier post — a lot of it feels like it comes from the classical concert hall.

Or, to put this differently, it grows from a classical music culture that — as a whole — doesn’t without many roots in contemporary life. So even if a piece was written yesterday, it might strike no more sparks in our wider culture than Mozart does. Or, really, it might strike fewer sparks! Because Mozart has a place in our wider culture. More or less everyone knows he existed, knows he was a genius (and may know various true or false things about him from Amadeus), and on hearing his work can, at the very least, say, “That’s classical music.”

Whereas people like Matthias Pintscher or Magnus Lindberg — or even someone more amiable, like Christopher Rouse — stir just about no recognition at all, either from their names or from the sound of their music (though maybe, at times, something they write might make someone think of a film score).

The moral of this? Simply playing new classical music isn’t the answer. It may not attract a new audience. It’s part of the answer, but the full solution has to be far more diverse.

Next: Why Pierre Boulez is a poster child for this problem. We talk about him as if his serial scores broke new paths in the culture of their time. But almost nobody heard them, while the French artists making real waves on the avant-garde — and shaking French and world culture — were filmmakers, Truffaut and Godard. 

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  1. says

    Seems like the visual avant-garde fared much better than the music ones for some reason — I mean, even something like minimalism has become the norm of visual aesthetics, but in music, no so much. (Although still more popular than most other classical styles.) What’s the disconnect, here?

    I think that during the 20th Century, classical music was so busy trying to “reinvent” itself that it had forgotten about its strengths and what made it unique. Harmony, counter-point, thematic development — these are things that you don’t see too often in other styles, but a lot of avant-garde composers really went way out of their way to avoid those things because it was seen as too passe. It was an interesting idea at the time, perhaps, but that approach doesn’t really leave you with much left at the end of the day.

    Neo-Baroque will be the new style in the upcoming years, I believe. It’s what society and musicians are moving towards right now.

  2. says

    as I say to whomever I talk to about my favorite subject, it’s mainly the presentation that is overdue for change. Resetting the context for enjoying classical music, whether new or old, atonal or tonal… mixing a very wide variety of music styles that pay some homage to song and rock, having strong elements of dance and beat, with both group and personal interactions… these are the surprising roads that will build curious new audiences. Some % of them will “upgrade” to the traditional (“pure”) concert experience.

    There are so MANY ways to demystify the experience that we’ve only begun scratching the surface! I can’t wait to start showing how we can bring MILLIONS comfortably into this world of ours! It will take ALL of our ideas… moderate resources and strong desire to experiment. And yes, we’re going to piss off most of the high-end users… but so what? Let’s start reminding ourselves that we’re not in the MUSIC business, we’re in the INSPIRATION business! And that means doing more than just composing and playing well.

    I’m starting to use the term “new classical”… with a meaning of “informal presentation styles for classical music”. Please consider joining me at CutTime®!

  3. BobG says

    I think you are onto something when you say that contemporary audiences will have an easier time accepting atonal (or at least dissonant) music, since that does seem to be the sound of movie scores and some rock music. And while the contemporary pop music I’ve heard sounds empty and repetitious to me, it almost certainly does train the ear for music without classical harmony or melody. (The Beatles, coming out of the great tradition, must now sound quaint.) But the film connection is important: I suspect no one who is not a musician is exposed to dissonant music on its own; it will always accompany something else (probably visual). Long ago when I used to go to modern dance performances, I noticed that I could listen to absolutely any kind of music if there was a dance going on. I would never have spent a minute, though, on the music by itself.

  4. says

    Terrific summation of where we have to go with this, Greg. Remember the frenzy when The Beatles came to fruition? It was their sound. It’s all about sound. I will have something to share soon, with permission of the composer, of a new work for solo piano and string orchestra. It is not by a composer known for the concert hall, but his heart and soul is in the classics, most notably Rachmaninov. His is a name on many recordings of the most recognizable pop artists. I heard a first demo yesterday. The harmonies, style, and most important, the sound, was very interesting. It will be one example of concert hall music with a different twist.

  5. William Florescu says

    Per your comment about Handel, we have found that Baroque music resonates with “new” classical audiences better than mid 19th century at times (to clarify, I am referring to opera here, not concert classical music). The other interesting point is that modern sounding, atonal music seems to be easier to embrace by the public at large when it backs something else (like a film). On its own, it seems to have rougher sledding.

    • says

      Good point about baroque music. Reminds me of Steve Reich saying that he liked classical music before Haydn, and in the 20th century, but wasn’t a fan of the core classical rep.

      • greitzer says

        in response to your steve reich comment: lots of musically sophisticated folks that i know (-ologists, composers, etc) seem to enjoy very old and very recent art music — Bach and earlier, and post 1900 — but not the “core classical repertory” (mozart, beethoven, brahms, etc) that falls in between. the hegemony of the triad, a friend of mine calls it: the era (19th c especially) when harmonic thinking took over, to the detriment of counterpoint.

      • says

        If you look back at styles and how they evolved, one was never removed to make way for the next. There has always been an overlapping or fusion of styles. I have said for two decades that the film composers have been consistently evolving, writing music to fill the masses with what they like, when accompanied by film. We need more of this in the concert hall. People like Lalo Schifrin, who was able to cross over from the film world to the concert hall, and very successfully. I also shared several years ago, perhaps 10 years ago, that some of the pop composers might meet up with their ‘classical’ counterparts, and fuse their sense of melody and harmony and create something special. This still can happen.

    • says

      As a younger person who likes classical music I much prefer Baroque music over Romantic and Classical. There is something a bit more dark and sincere about Baroque music, which I do not hear in most Romantic and Classical-era music.

      • says

        Hi Matthew.

        I wonder if such a preference for “sincerity of Baroque music” lay in its working out of SINGLE themes and NON-contrasting textures. The hallmark and innovations of the classical and romantic eras were (in-part) the contrasting ot 2 or more themes and flow of a gamut of emotions. I wonder if having two themes seems in any way artificial to you who prefer Baroque.

  6. E.M. Wynter says

    So darn true: “We have to think about this, because the audience we have now won’t be replaced by another one like it, by another audience that accepts the old view of what classical music is.”

    And, for what it’s worth, I wanted to offer a few humble ideas. I’m one of the types who can’t identify with the old experiential model… or atonal music, for that matter. Ninety-nine percent of my music (whether old/new/classical/electronic) has a findable tempo somewhere, even if it appears up only here and there. Most music (there are a few exceptions) sounds just non-human to me without it.

    So of course, I like dances, pops, Beethoven, etc. But I also like Mason Bates (B-Sides) as well as Cindy McTee’s Circuits. And I have a wild theory: that palatable modern classical will reference electronica, specifically some ambient music.

    To see what you think, just for kicks, go to Pandora and create a station for Aphex Twin. Listen for 15 minutes. What you’ll hear reminds ME of classical music. Some of its so-so. Some of it can be a little atonal. But I just bet that if you hooked me up to a machine while it plays, my brain waves would hit the same patterns they do when I hear the aforementioned Bates and McTee. I dig their stuff – because it moves and I move with it. And when I’m not moving at ALL, I feel dead. But that’s just me :) Please feel free to debate.

    • says

      Aphex Twin — perfect point to make. And you probably know that his music has been covered by Alarm Will Sound and by the London Sinfonietta, who’ve done acoustic arrangements of Aphex Twin tracks. Not as effective as the originals, in my view, but notable anyway, both musically and culturally.

      The mainstream classical world gets excited by Brahms using gypsy music, or by Beethoven (in the Pastoral Symphony) affectionately imitating a peasant band, whose bass-instrument player can only play three notes. The equivalents today would be classical composers drawing on pop sounds, or affectionately — OK, to make it personal, I’d love to write a piece where I imitate the band I heard in a bar in Sloatsburg, NY, that played ad sung its heart out, even though none of the members seemed to know where the beat was.

      Doing those things still seems radical though. Despite Mason and all his success, and all the younger composers for whom pop (in its many forms) is as much a native language as classical.

      • E.M. Wynter says

        Thanks for your reply, Greg. No, I did not know that those groups have done arrangements of Aphex Twin. Learn something new every day – especially at this blog :)

        • says

          Thanks for the compliment, E.M. Much appreciated! But I might add that I’m honored by all the disagreement as well. If people take the trouble to disagree with me with such passion, I must be doing something that might matter.

  7. Anziano says

    There is comparatively little atonality in pop music, and what there is is not developed but static, i.e., a chord out of the basic harmonic sequence is used again and again purely as a programmatic sound effect. It says “bad vampires are coming” or “we are a dangerous heavy metal band,” but it doesn’t go anywhere within the musical structure, it doesn’t expand it. And the majority of pop music (especially mood-creating techno and electronica), relies heavily on repetition of pleasing sound on a backdrop of primary harmonics. Since we tend to be what we learn, this explains why the youngest generation is enamored of The Beatles, and ensures that, Greg’s ex-girlfriend’s penchant for Berg notwithstanding, atonality will struggle to win new audiences in the next twenty-five years as it did in Berg’s time.

  8. says

    Hi Greg,

    Not to jump the gun, but…. A comparison of New Wave film and Modernist music isn’t really valid, since they A) had different influences and B) different goals. Truffaut and Godard both loved Hollywood cinema and used it as a template (which went off in some crazy directions). At root, a filmgoer would not be completely at sea watching “Jules and Jim” like she would listening to “Le marteau sans maitre,” unless she had a healthy diet of Webern and Stravinsky inside her. Had Modernist composers been enthralled with jazz and American folk song, and not Webern and Rimbaud, they would have written music more in the spirit of New Wave films, and probably wouldn’t have been called Modernists.

    Their goals were similar different – with Modernist composers wanting to pour salt over the Earth and start over. I don’t think it can be said that New Wave filmmakers wanted to do that, at least not in the early ’60s.

    Boulez-bashing is so passe, also as unreadable as some scenes from Godard’s Marxist “La Chinoise” feel unwatchable (to me, anyway) today. What power does he have today that he can be the “poster child” for our problems? That argument has been made for decades, and I can’t see the logic at this stage. It’s like Congress continuing to re-legislate established law years after everybody accepts the lay of the land.

    Au revoir,


    • says

      Marc, you’ll defend classical music — in its present form — to the death, won’t you? Even the expense of logic, common sense, and historical accuracy. Of course modernist music and new wave film were different, had different origins and goals. That was exactly my point! Modernist music — for a whole variety of reasons, which I won’t delve into here — dug itself into a hole. A hole that felt explosively creative to those doing the digging, but still a hole. You didn’t see modernist composers draw on other musical culture of any kind, populist or art-oriented. Whereas filmmakers, as you point out, did those things. Which meant they played an active role in the cultural changes that were happening in their time, while the modernist composers didn’t.

      Everything you say about the two being different actually supports my point! Don’t you see that?

      As for the modernist films being understandable, yes and no. Yes, because when Truffaut made Shoot the Piano Player and Godard made Breathless, anyone who’d seen American gangster films could sense a connection. Shoot the Piano Player is even based on an American novel, a noir thriller by David Goodis. (Parenthesis: Goodis’s writing has been collected in three separate volumes in the Library of America series, meant to enshrine and preserve important American literary landmarks. So here we see the guardians of literary art taking pulp thrillers into their pantheon. We haven’t seen the equivalent in classical music! Can’t quite imagine Boulez — or the management, let’s say, of Carnegie Hall — enshrining cartoon scores from the 1940s in any musical pantheon.)

      But you need to read Mark Harris’s book. Not only were European art films not understandable to many people when they were new, but the American films they influenced — The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, maybe Easy Rider (don’t remember if Harris cites that one) — weren’t understandable, either. Harris says that, once those films started being made, if you went to a party in Hollywood, you’d see it split into two halves, younger people and older ones, who weren’t able to speak to each other.

      The locus classicus for not understanding was Bosley Crowther’s review of Antonioni’s L’avventura, Crowther being the film critic for the NY Times. I saw L’avventura when I was in high school, as I said in my post, and it struck me right to the heart. I hung on every moment of it, with complete if unspoken (and probably not completely thorough; I was a teenager) understanding. Crowther’s review amazed, amused, and angered me. He was as clueless as a literate human being could be, as I could see even then.

      L’avventura of course came to be ranked as one of the very greatest films ever made, though there certainly were important critics later on (Pauline Kael) who didn’t like it. But by Kael’s time, you had a choice. If you didn’t like Antonioni, at least you could see what he was trying to do, and understood that for many people he was profound and important.

      Crowther just ridiculed him. Then came all the acclaim the film got, maybe most notably the special jury prize at Cannes. And Crowther lost his nerve. He reviewed Antonioni’s later films respectfully, though clearly — as I could see even back then — he didn’t comprehend them at all. And in fact they’re more difficult.

      L’avventura bothered people with an old-fashioned outlook in part (though only in part) because the woman who seems to be the main character disappears early on, and her disappearance is never explained, even though a search for her becomes the backbone of the film. But La Notte, Antonioni’s next film, seemed to have no events in it at all. And L’eclisse, which formed a trilogy with the other two, seemed completely baffling. People generally granted the purely cinematic brilliance of a scene at a stock exchange during a market crash, but the final sequence of the film — five minutes in which nothing happens, not a single character from the film appears, and mostly there are only places, no people — seemed completely incomprehensible, and in fact was often cut. Which is something to be amazed by. Here was a film by a director hailed as a genius, and of course shown only in art houses, to an audience of artists and intellectuals. And the final sequence was thought too baffling even for them! I went to see these films numerous times, and would be dismayed when the sequence should have started, and the film jumped absurdly to the final image, accompanied by a loud chord on the soundtrack, arising (image and sound) out of nothing.

      Crowther was fired for his noncomprehension, not just of Antonioni, but of new directions in Hollywood films. Some people may have been able to understand these films, partly because their roots in early moviese were clear enough, but other people didn’t get it at all. So much so that the Times — which generally was completely mainstream in its cultural taste — had to get a new film critic. The mainstream had abruptly shifted. And yes, in our time we think of Bonnie and Clyde as a classic, and imagine that the leap from previous Hollywood films wasn’t nearly as great as the leap from (let’s say) The Firebird to Boulez, the view when Bonnie and Clyde was new would have been quite different.

      One last thing. You accuse me of Boulez bashing. I’ll grant that my poster child phrase might lead you to that thought, but if you take the trouble to understand what I’m saying, you’ll see that I’m bashing the classical music world for making too much of Boulez, which is a rather different thing. I personally enjoy his music. But it never — not when I first heard it, and not now — has gotten to me the way Godard and Antonioni have.

    • says


      Not to keep beating this poor horse, but a word about ways to think about these questions. You say, reasonably enough, that modernist composers had different goals, compared to new wave filmmakers. True, and of course rather obvious. But reasonable only if you aren’t looking at a wider context, which was what I tried to do.

      In a wider context, you might want to note that Godard had a cultural role very different from Boulez’s. And then you might want to ask why. Why did composers and filmmakers have such different goals?
      Why was it that film — in the late ’50s and early ’60s — developed an avant-garde that could plug immediately into a wider culture, even if at first only a minority of people (artists, intellectuals, hipsters [for want of a better word] responded? And why wasn’t there an upsurge of advanced composers who drew on all the musical culture around them? Why instead did they develop the styles they did?

      And what were the consequences? What happened to classical music, as a result of the composers taking that path, and not taking other paths?

      I find it sad that, very much in the past but even now, many people in the classical world take the established order as a given, something that self-evidently needs no defense. And don’t ask why things are as they are, and (especially when compared to what we see in other arts) whether this was good.

      A classic example (well, classic at least for me). In 1982, Paul Griffiths published an excellent book called “Modern Music” (not to be confused with its thoroughly reconceived sequel, “Modern Music and After.” Well, it was an excellent book, taken on its own terms, which were very much the terms of modernist music.

      At the end of the book, to his credit, Paul wrote something about Steve Reich, and in doing so said something about the excited audiences Steve had. (I think that’s right. I don’t have the book with me to check. But I know he said something about the audience for minimal music.) This was the first reference to any kind of audience anywhere in the book.

      Which then, at least for me, made the book’s limitations clear. Why didn’t the mention of an audience for Steve Reich suggest that Paul might look at the audience for all the other composers he wrote about? Who in fact was their audience? How did the audience this music had affect the composers? If Reich had an audience Carter and Xennakis didn’t, what significance might that have?

      Etc. It wasn’t done to ask those questions. Paul just took things as he found them, and didn’t look at a wider context.

      • says

        Well, I won’t defend the present classical-music world to the death, but I will try to correct distortions of it where I see them. I work daily in the classical-music world to preserve its strengths and move those forward so A) they can survive me and B) more great new music can rise up and find an audience. May a thousand flowers bloom.

        I think there’s a flaw in your statement, “…many people in the classical world take the established order as a given, something that self-evidently needs no defense.” The established order of something *is* a given; that’s what makes it established, or the establishment. The *good* things about it should be defended, while those that are stifling should rightly be called out. My only concern with your general position on the established order is that it seems to be a monolithic entity that is rigid and inflexible. You want it to be freer and more responsive to culture. I do, too!

        In my 10 or so years in the business, I have *never* found a co-worker or musician who simply wants to shut down an innovative idea immediately, or refuses to consider something just because it’s new. (Editors, oddly, were more resistant to experimentation than anyone in management.) Many people are working to accomplish many of the things you’ve said are necessary, and some are having some success in that. You recognize the financial difficulties of this, as well as the financial necessity, but I think you often present a picture that is so dire and of orchestras repeatedly bringing knives to gunfights that it doesn’t align with the reality I see. That’s why I chime in here, to try and say, “Wait a second, I think your fundamentals and assumptions are skewed.” Data is data, and we all have (mostly) the same data, and are acting accordingly. I don’t think anyone believes a 60-year old+ audience base is the way of the future, or that Modernist music was the final word on contemporary music. So when I see things painting those as articles of blind faith, I’ll say something.

        As for why the musical avant-garde couldn’t plug into a wider culture immediately, in the 20th century, I suppose it would be for similar reasons that Beethoven’s late works weren’t always immediately beloved; not the same reasons, but a similar outline. Minimalism certainly did get well-known outside the usual classical ghetto, and neo-Romanticism didn’t hurt for a public. Those styles, arguably, have readily noticeable connections to music a lot of people already enjoy, and so, like some New Wave movies, they’re new works that fit into existing forms. An audience doesn’t have to know, say, GW Pabst to get a New Wave movie the way hearing Webern helps with Modernism.

        Always a pleasure, tussling over the past so we can tussle over the present…!

        • says

          Thanks for this wonderful, warm, and thoughtful reply, Mark. You’re a more courteous debater than I often am.

          I’d love to sit down some day with you, and consider the response, from orchestras and others, to new ideas. I’ve seen them shot down over and over again. You might ask students at music schools if they feel encouraged to do anything new. I’ve had students who take my classes at Juilliard tell me that their major teachers even discourage them from playing contemporary music (and I mean the most orthodox kinds of new works, nothing so radical as minimalism). I remember one student, who’d (amazingly) given a Master’s Degree bassoon recital, in which the second half was all amplified indie rock arrangements. When I asked him in class how he’d pulled that off, his delightful, thorough answer (he was a master tactician) included this: “And while I did all the things I’m telling you, I had to make sure the dean never found out.” (Which dean it was I’ll leave to the student to reveal, if he’d ever want to.)

          There’s a doctoral thesis by a British scholar I know, which after a thorough review of present circumstances and history concludes that conservatories marginalize creative engagement with music.

          I’ve worked pretty extensively with orchestras and orchestra people, and while I’ve seen some new ideas flower, I’ve seen many more shot down. And, not at all incidentally, be greeted with disdain when they’re presented. Like the idea that musicians might smile, or otherwise show some interest in their audience. I organized a meeting at an orchestra retreat (involving a number of orchestras) to present that thought. My co=conspirator was Bruce Coppock, at that time the executive director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and now the director of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Miami operation. Bruce and I made our case, and the first response was: “Why should we smile? The conductors are terrible! We have nothing to smile about.”

          And then there was someone I knew in the NY Philharmonic, whom I ran into outside Carnegie Hall, after a Berlin Philharmonic concert. “Did you see the way the musicians move?” he said to me, almost levitating with excitement. “If I tried to do that, I’d be reprimanded.” (The Berlin Phil musicians use their bodies freely, and with great individuality, while they play. The basses at times almost dance with their instruments. Most orchestras would forbid that. And my Juilliard students routinely say that their teachers forbid them to move while they play.)

          Of course, anyone can say these are just anecdotes. Which is true. But I could go on and on. And I know that high-ranking people in the orchestra field, who can’t speak publicly about this, will say privately that orchestras are strongly resistant to change. Tony Woodcock, freed from the orchestra world now that he runs the New England Conservatory, has said as much in his blog.

  9. says

    You mention the French cinematic artists of the 1960s, and this made me think immediately about that other major artistic movement from France from that era, in literature, which followed the 1940s and 1950s explosion of “existentialism” (Sartre, Camus) and “absurdism” (Ionesco, Beckett): the “nouveau roman.”

    Exemplified by Alain Robbe-Grillet (with other figures like Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras, Michel Butor, Robert Pinget, Claude Ollier, etc.), incorporated into several landmark films, chiefly “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” and “Last Year at Marienbad,” both directed by Alain Resnais, taken up by the likes of exuberant young American critics like Susan Sontag, and representing a distinct French and global literary strain, in response in part to the subjective, conventional literature of the World War II and initial post-war era, and which would culminate in the Nobel Prize in Literature awarded in 1985 to Claude Simon, the nouveau roman no longer provokes any brouhaha, but in its day, it had fans, detractors, and still hovers over French and global literature.

    It wasn’t just French cinematic art, but French literature as well that again sent ripples across Europe and the seas.