New programming — expanding the box

One more thought about changing/expanding the classical repertoire, because our culture has changed, and people have new ideas about music. Have had those ideas, in fact, for quite a while.

So I want to suggest that classical music people — even those in the most mainstream classical music institutions — should perform music that’s far outside the normal notions of classical music. This is music that might be compared to installation and performance art,  work which (as I’ve noted before) is huge in the art world, is shown in major museums, and is strongly featured in major media. (The links take you to some Washington, DC examples. One is the Hirschhorn Museum’s website, where you can see what they’re offering, including the show the graphic I’m using illustrates. The other is the Washington Post‘s explication of a giant outdoor Hirschhorn installation, one that got giant press, and was much talked about in this town.)

So I’m going to suggest that orchestras,  for instance, think of programming John Cage’s famous silent piece, 4’33”, or pieces by Pauline Oliveros, in which the audience hums and sings. Or Stockhausen’s Stimmung, where six singers sit in a circle and chant overtones of B flat. Or Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, in which a series of recordings gorgeously reveal the acoustic color of the space you’re in.

To which some people surely will reply: Orchestras? Why should orchestras (or chamber music groups, or opera companies) do these things? These pieces aren’t orchestra works (or chamber pieces, or operas). That’s not what our mission is!

But you have a larger mission, which is to represent classical music in your community, and to foster it. You may think, “We’re an orchestra, so everyone understands we play orchestral music.” But you’re wrong. Part of your job — an essential part, in the coming years — will be to reach people who currently don’t care much about classical music, and (a crucial thing to understand) they don’t think of you the way you think of yourself. Yes, they see you play orchestral works, and that’s what they — without thinking very much about it — expect from you.

But even more than that, they see you as a prominent — maybe, in your community, the most prominent — example of classical music. So what you do is what they think classical music is. To attract them, you’ll have to function as part of their culture, as a contemporary art form. To do that, you have to offer music that stretches as far as other arts do, and as far as popular culture does. And you won’t be doing that if mostly what you do is play familiar masterworks for your existing, conservative audience.

I see that this post is running long, so I’m going to stop here, and continue tomorrow. After I get this post about programming done (and one more, very short one), I’ll move on to what might be my most controversial suggestion — that we have to play the standard works more vividly.


Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    I’ll have to disagree about performing Cage, Stockhausen, et al. or any of the modernists of that era — their pieces have been played enough times in public already, I think, to make an informed decision about whether or not they’ve been successful in attracting new audiences. 4’33” is probably the most “successful” out of all of them, since people who know even a little about art have at least heard of it before. But are people knocking down doors to go hear any of those things? No, and in a lot of cases you’ll find them openly mocking it as a representation of the pretentious psuedo-intellectualism of the art world.

    Audience participation pieces sound good in concept, but have they done surveys or even asked people if they enjoyed the experience of doing it or not? I think you’ll find that a good portion (if not in vast majority of cases) people are not comfortable with becoming “part of the piece” or being put in the spotlight against their will. In some ways it’s very coercive in a passive-aggressive kind of way, since it pushes the responsibility of content creation onto the audience themselves. There are some good reasons why these works aren’t taken very seriously by some, and I think it would be unwise to keep on pushing the same things over and over.

    These methodologies have been around for at least 50-60 years at this point, and I think it’s time to be honest about a few things about our programming choices in the 20th century. We need a radical departure, not a continuation of what hasn’t worked.

    • says

      Thanks, Ryan. Good to have another opinion.

      I don’t worry that people aren’t beating down the doors to hear this stuff. They don’t know about it, haven’t been exposed to it, so they don’t know they’d like a lot of it. The Cage silent piece is much loved in the pop music world. Maybe you know that it went to No. 20 (or some number in that area) on the British pop charts last Xmas, in a mashup of recordings by many pop artists. As for audience participation, when a Pauline Oliveros piece was done at Lincoln Center Out of Doors a few summers ago, people seemed to love it. Why wouldn’t they?

      And since these things were never meant to help build a new audience, it’s hard to say they haven’t worked. Again, I’ll use the analogy with installation and performance art. If crowds can throng MOMA in New York to see an artist sit motionless for days, and to walk among nude people (part of the same piece) simply standing or sitting, motionless, not looking at anyone…and if some of the people seeing this thought it was a peak experience in their lives…it’s hard to believe that musical equivalents wouldn’t succeed. They have to be carefully chosen, and carefully added to existing programming. But if the NY Philharmonic installed Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire in Avery Fisher Hall, maybe in an upstairs area, or in the hall itself, and invited people to come an hour before a concert and experience it, why wouldn’t that work? It’s a peaceful, deeply lovely thing. And you can ignore it if you wnat. Just sit quietly and talk.

      • says

        I guess it depends on what you mean by “success” — this has to be very carefully defined and made very explicit, especially if it’s being done by large institutions like orchestras. (I’ve seen you write stuff echoing this point of view before, so I hope you’ll agree.) It’s not a secret that museums are facing a lot of financial and political problems right now and curatorial decision-making is coming to the forefront of the issue here.

        I have my personal biases on certain styles of music, but I wouldn’t discount the possibility that we’ve come to “appreciate” these things just because we were told to as students that they were great while enrolled at a music school. After I became a musicologist, the unfortunate side-effect was that I’ve come to appreciate some of these works *less* than before, because of its countless problems regarding its aesthetics and intellectual constructs. So the more I learned about it, the less I became interested — which is, unfortunately, the pattern I’ve come to also see among a lot of people I’ve talked to as well.

        Art-bashing makes people look intolerant so most people are smart enough to avoid talking about these things in public, but they’ll make their voice known with their wallet, or in cases of publicly funded works — with their vote. There’s a chunk of people who come once and never return, speaking negatively about their experiences and spreading the word around in this way, and they’re a bigger portion of the audience that most institutions would probably would like to admit.

        “Seem to love” isn’t good enough — the question is, do they care enough about the content to part with their hard-earned money? Do they come back for seconds, begging for more of it? It’s easy to catch glimpses of interest or generating rave reviews is not at all difficult if you have a marketing budget, but actions speak louder than words. If it’s not a market enterprise, then it needs to be justified intellectually somehow, especially if there’s taxpayer money involved. I’m concerned because the former research (with non-rose colored glasses) is pretty much non-existent at this point, and the latter has been waning because of shifts in political priorities since the end of the Cold War.

        These are all things that happen in ideal worlds, I know, and I could be completely wrong about all of this. But people look up to classical music because of its refined language and skill that it takes to execute — these works remove those things from the picture and that poses a problem for the medium’s identity in the minds of its audience. As a result, people get confused about what’s going on and as a result become indifferent to it. Not that they come to hate it, but it no longer becomes important to them in their daily scheme of things.

        Anyway, just wanted to put another point of view out there. Right now, if any, would be the time to propose a radical departure from the modern aesthetic…and I think this could be very fruitful if done right.

        • says

          Your last thought is worth exploring. Would you say more about what you mean by the modern aesthetic, how you think it may have hurt classical music, and what the alternatives are?

          What I see outside classical music is that modern aesthetics (there’s certainly more than one) have been more or less fully absorbed into the general consciousness, where they mix and match and slice and dice with everything else that’s going on. So there’s no problem with them.

          I assume, therefore, that if classical music behaved more like the rest of our culture, all of its modern aesthetics (Schoenberg, Cage, Robert Ashley, you name it) would find their place. Not necessarily a central place, in their pure form, but a place. I also think it’s likely that we’ll come closer to making classical music more like the rest of our culture if we start bringing those modern aesthetics into it, without making any special point of them, other than “here’s something we like.”

          Perhaps in the fall I’ll unleash a barrage on the blog, of things that are more or less taken for granted in contemporary non-classical music culture. Raising the question of why, in classical music, they have to be so problematic.

          One last thought. Sometimes it’s good to do things that don’t directly lead to sales. Or, in less crass terms, with pleasing an audience. Sometimes you need to show that you’re aware of a wide variety of things, that you cast your net very wide, whether or not large numbers of your audience are there yet. That makes you seem interesting, brands you as someone who — or as an organization that — knows what’s going on in the world. Subtly, that adds extra value even to the conventional things you do.

          • says

            People will love or hate the thing as a concept, but the people who will spend money buying a CD of 4’33” is a very very small market, especially now where the novelty of it had worn off. That’s really what that piece is — a novelty product that somehow got put on top of a pedestal. Puts a different spin on the idea of the “found object”, if anything. It’s a celebration of our consumer culture, minus the work involved.

            Entire books have been written about this so I’ll try to keep it short, but here’s a few reasons why championing this piece is a bad idea:

            – With this piece, Cage managed to “brand” the concept of silence under his own name. You can hardly talk about silence in music without making a mention of him, even though it’s really just something in nature that shouldn’t be owned by anyone. (There’s even been lawsuits surrounding the piece, which is kind of ridiculous.) It reminds people of a practice called “patent trolling” which innovators and business leaders have come to despise.

            – Administrative laziness — composer get’s credit for producing nothing, reminds people of bureaucracies doing nothing but getting paid anyway. Conceptual pieces have labor issues where the composer is “milking” the audience of their creativity while using it for their own personal gain.

            – Cage was a marketing genius, but I think it’s fair to say that a piece like that doesn’t really take any skill to make. And the idea that you could box up something like nothing, put a good story behind it, and sell it to people happy to get the “experience” of it comes across as extremely cynical.

            Conceptual art is supposed to be “left up to the interpretation of the observer”, but the funny thing is that art institutions, as a whole, never bothered finding out what these interpretations were, except in cases where it happened to be positive. There may have been a time where these ideas people would go crazy for, but we’re living in different times now — people are smarter, more aware, and the same marketing tricks aren’t going to work. Even if what you’re selling people is a fantasy, it’s going to have to be better, somehow, than what came before.

            I do agree about the pleasing thing, though. Even private companies experiment and take risks with putting out things that people might not immediately enjoy. Google is a good example — something like 70%+ of their code end in failures, and their policy for everything is that everything is in “permanent beta”. But there’s a strong sense of justification in *why* people might like it, if not now, then maybe so

          • says

            Ryan, did you ever meet Cage, see him perform, or hear him give a public talk? I’m not sure you’d have your view of him if you’d done those things. He might be the most joyful man I’ve ever met, and I could tell you story after story about how his pieces force musicians back into their deepest core. If the musicians are honest, that is.

          • says

            I don’t doubt that he had his joyful moments — but he’s human, after all, and there’s a darker side to his works that musicians generally don’t like to talk about. Also, people conduct themselves very differently in public than they do in private, and this is particularly true for celebrities who have to adopt a persona in order to sustain their careers.

            I’m talking about the audiences here, not the musicians. Inside these pieces, musicians get paid either way, so it doesn’t really matter if they produce anything of value or not. I’m sure you’ve already heard stories of people getting genuinely angry over some of Cage’s works, but I would say that this is probably the main reason why. It can be interpreted as a big middle-finger toward the people that are supporting them, in a lot of ways, and it’s impossible for many to see these types of works as anything more than a joke.

            In the name of “progress”, though, this type of provocation was seen as natural, maybe even necessary. But things are different now. People got tired of being angry, so they’re more likely to just ignore it or be dismissive, tending to things that they feel are more important to them. When budget time comes, they won’t think twice when our programs get slashed, and that’s pretty much what has been happening already.

            You might disagree, but my opinion is that the sooner these pieces get retired, the better off we’d all be in the long run. It was a fantasy world rooted in the ideology of the 60s — and it worked for a while — but it’s time to move on, I think. It’s clearly not in alignment with the needs of society at this current moment.

    • says

      Sorry I’m late to this discussion. I disagree with your idea of audience participation. Participation is essentially the hallmark of non-classical concerts. People openly love to sing along and dance. A common sight at a punk show, for instance, is seeing the singer get right up to the crowd and share the microphone with audience members, giving them a chance to sing the song instead. Search YouTube for “Dan Deacon spiral” and you’ll find him leading a concert from the standing room and literally guiding the audience. Then read the comments and you’ll find people who were at these shows and claim that they were some of the greatest musical experiences of their lives. Glue, an underground hip-hop group, has a video on YouTube of a similar thing happening at ADeeM’s request (the rapper of the group). I’ve been to one of their shows and ADeeM’s desire to get people involved in the performance is exhilarating. Think of electronic music shows; these would be akin to sitting at home and pressing play on a recording if it weren’t for audience participation. Tricky, a trip-hop artist, once said that he likes to stay in the dark during his performances because the real show is what the crowd is doing (I’m paraphrasing). I once watched a documentary on the psychedelic era of the late 60s where a similar idea was voiced about either the Grateful Dead’s concerts or Jefferson Airplane’s (I forget which). It would honestly be difficult to imagine a non-classical concert being considered a success without audience participation. Why should it be different for classical music?

      • says

        Participation used to be the hallmark of classical concerts, in the 18th century, and for some of the 19th. You can read many, many, many accounts of this, including (just for instance) people in the audience crying out in delight at certain passages in Beethoven symphonies. Much as a gospel congregation responds to heightened moments in a gospel song. (On Aretha’s “Amazing Grace” album, listen to the reaction to her singing “the sweet silver song of the lark,” in her version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”)

        And I’ve talked many times here about Mozart’s letter, the one in which he tells his father how he structured a symphony to get the audience to applaud during the music.

        Audience participation, really, is a hallmark of _musical_ performance. Our present classical performance ritual would be something of an anomaly, historically/culturally.

  2. says

    Sorry, got cut off with a bad cut-and-paste.

    …maybe in some time in the future.

    But I don’t see museums ever really paying attention to social trends enough to really make these types of justifications. Seems like we’re obliged to like certain artists or ideas “just because”, or because it’s “beautiful” in a subjective sense.

    I don’t want to sound harsh but unfortunately these feel-good phrases, when it comes down to it, isn’t enough to make a difference. Classical music has an excellent results in terms of its technical standards, but it’s often lacking intellectual rigor that’s necessary for making people really excited about what it’s about to do in the future.

    The potential is still there — it’s just not being run the right way, I don’t think.

  3. Carlos Fischer says

    Though i have a personal opinion on Cage’s 4’33” , i believe it still has a place in performances today . I imagine a context to be given in a concert program like this: Cage’s 4’33” ; some Whiteacre’s song for solo voice, Vasks’ Gramata Cellam, for solo cello ; Harrison’s Gran Duo for piano and violin; Webern’s Slow movement for string quartet and Lindberg’s Seht die Sonne, for orchestra. This concert would last aproximately 1hour and 15 min….It starts with “full” silence, following a human voice, then a solo,a duo, a quartet…finishing with a powerful orchestral piece like Lindberg’s…”full noise”. what do you think?

  4. Fast Eddy says

    It looks like our umbrella is getting pretty big. Should the symphony orchestra be a community’s flagship institution for the performance of ALL classical arts and art music?

    I don’t think we have a choice; it’s been moving that way for some time!

    Consider the situation in Dayton, where the opera, symphony, and ballet just merged a few days ago. Here in Salt Lake also, where the symphony and opera merged in 2002. And just catch any Berlin Phil Digi-cast, where the music of composers mentioned in your post and the comments can be heard frequently, all with very different ideas of what an ‘orchestra’ can be.

    Fortunately for us, this will be a very good thing in the long run. Orchestras are only here anyways because monied music lovers in the mid 19th Century had the funds and talent pool to build permanent organizations to play the music of the first viennese masters, who themselves defined the ‘classical’ style as a perfect balance of adventure, refinement, and reverence for the best of the past.

    Consistently programming the works of Cage and Ligeti, for example, honors this legacy, and even if they fail with listeners, they will enhance the greatness of the standard rep by virtue of their radically different perspective.

    • says

      Thanks! Good thoughts. I do think that orchestras have, de facto, become the flagship classical music institutions in their communities. Which gives them many opportunities, if they’d care to take advantage of them.

      And I love your idea that playing Ligeti and Cage not only honors the classical masters, but continues their tradition!