What we have to do

Now it’s time to return to the main business of this blog, which of course is the future of classical music.

And also to return to something I stressed before my vacation, which is that the main business — the highest priority, the central focus — of people in our field should be to find a new audience.

This ought to be a no-brainer. As things are now, the old audience isn’t being replaced, or at least not in anywhere near large enough numbers to sustain classical music institutions at the size they are now. Or to give smaller groups and solo musicians enough audience to survive.

Teaching classical music in our schools  — for so many people the beloved solution — really isn’t much more than a dream. There are four problems with it:

  • How are we going to get classical music taught all over the US (limiting myself just to the situation here), when, first, interest in classical music has declined, and, second, money is short? My town of Warwick, NY closed one of its elementary schools last year, because of the economic crisis. This year it cut back so much on schoolbuses that police warned everyone driving a car to be careful of kids walking either to school, or to schoolbus stops that used to be much closer to their homes. With this going on, is Warwick suddenly going to start teaching classical music?
  • How are we going to get people to agree to music education that highlights classical music  — a genre with an almost entirely white audience — in an age of growing diversity, with an emerging nonwhite majority?
  • Why do we think that teaching kids classical music will turn them, later in life, into a paying classical audience? Back in the ’60s, classical music was widely taught, but that didn’t stop kids from rejecting it, and exploding toward rock instead. Why are kids going to reject the exciting, creative, deeply artistic music of our current culture, to prefer something we think they should like?
  • And even if, in spite of the last three points, classical music spreads widely in our schools, and does produce a new audience, it’ll take decades before that new audience is large enough to make a difference. We don’t have that much time.

So we have to find a new audience now, in other ways. Which means (as I’ve written many times before) that classical music will have to change, because our culture has changed. Old-school classical performances won’t, for the most part, speak to our current world. We have to find new ways of doing things.

I’ve got a four-point proposal, for things that anyone presenting classical music should do. It’ll be in my next post.

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Comments

  1. says

    Now tell me– WHAT deeply artistic music culture is he talking about. Lady GaGa? Jay-Z?
    I say–do nothing. If the audience wants to grow up and seek out real culture, fine. I found it despite the 1960’s self absorbed music nonsense..
    If not, let them wallow in their own crap. Either way, they’ll deserve it.

    • James Johnston says

      I totally agree- an audience will always find the serious/art music of its time and the musicians will create it. Let’s stop talking about it already..

      • says

        An audience, yes. But maybe not a big enough audience to support the composers and performers playing the music. If you are a fan, you can have the luxury of snobbery, but for those of us who compose and perform classical music, this is not possible or desirable.

        Aside from the economic necessity for growing an audience, I want to share classical music with more people because I love it and I believe it can enrich their lives.

    • Dymitry Wos says

      There is music of much better quality than Jay-Z or Lady Gaga being produced, but it still does not meet classical standards, it is generally very underground, and many of its listeners already have some interest in classical music anyway, so I also have no idea what “deeply artistic music” is being referred to either. I do see that while many people are content with the mainstream, seemingly more people than ever, of all ages, are disillusioned with the “music” they see being offered to them. Some have sought out classical music or underground music, but others have lost interest in music altogether, and offering classical music to them would be worth a try.
      To find older classical works of value is not difficult, and plausible for most people with some spare time. To find new ones is very difficult, mainly because most sites of living composers feature an incredible amount of fluff about their awards/fellowships/grants/prizes and next to no information about what their music actually sounds like. Perhaps there will be quotes from newspaper critics claiming one of their compositions was “vital”, “dynamic”, “vibrant”, “effervescent” or something else equally devoid of meaning, and some poorly recorded audio samples that turn out to be atonal chaos anyway. The largest exception to that pattern is Vox Saeculorum, who offer a clear indication of style, and audio samples that display plenty of competence, but then they have 20+ composers and it is practically impossible to find an album by one of them for sale. Now imagine how bizarre a site hosting 20 bands in the same style with nothing existent except a few mp3 files and pages of sheet music per band would look. Then consider the ordeals that musicians have to go through that listeners do not; for example, attempting to network with classical musicians, despite the capabilities of the internet, is basically unproductive torture.
      The premise of your comment is generally correct, but I cannot see “do nothing” as the ideal plan of action when there is a situation where a few people listen to quality music, but rarely create it (and will be ignored if they do), ultimately remaining culturally inferior to those who made it flourish.

    • says

      Hi, Dan,

      Not sure I’m going to post a tactical plan just now, but I’ve had some posts about it in the past. Since you’re interested, and I’m sure others are — and because it’s a crucial issue — I may summarize those past posts shortly.

  2. says

    Ha ha Richard you really need to get out more. Obviously there’s a hell of a lot more to contemporary popular music than you seem to be aware of, and there is a great deal of stunning music. Maybe you could start with Radiohead

    • Dymitry Wos says

      Maybe not, since Radiohead are basically as inept as any rap or bubblegum pop project (if they are more skilled, then they refuse to demonstrate it at all, which is even worse). Almost every song I have heard from them consisted of a two second percussion loop, with much more cymbals than actual drums, and the same guitar motif repeated verbatim for about four minutes, accompanied by occasional droning notes from a synthesizer. Even deathcore bands include more content and display more virtuosity than that.

      • says

        You’re listening to the wrong things – check out the “grain of the voice” aspects, like the design of the guitar sounds, the way the vocal delivery interacts with the lyrics, the texture of the sound. It’s like you’re complaining about Beethoven not having enough 13th chords or power chord distorted guitars. Or complaining about blues having only three chords, ignoring the main thing about it.

        • Dymitry Wos says

          So the next time I hear 4-5 seconds of simplistic empty music looped for 4 minutes, I should pay attention to texture, since including texture in a 4-5 second loop will somehow make it sound as impressive as a full 4 minutes of music with actual counterpoint and thematic development.

          I do not ignore the “main thing behind” blues, which is that it is the worst mistake in musical history. I am not inclined to complain about the lack of chordal variation, however, as it is less offensive than the disjunct melody, badly applied chromaticism, sloppy timing, and pitch bending that would repulse anyone with a serious interest in classical aesthetics.

          • says

            It’s easy to prove that any kind of music, any kind at all, is superior, if you take the things it does best and say that they’re the most important things music can do. So for you, the important things are counterpoint, thematic development, and (apparently) pure, unbent pitches. For someone else, it’s improvisation, for someone else subtleties of rhythm unknown in classical music, for many people outside the west microtonal variations of pitch, for someone else texture. Who’s right? No one. Music is too rich to be barricaded in these ways, to have fences erected inside which — and only inside which — is musical truth to be found.

          • Rob Davidson says

            Blues is the heart of American music Dymitry – if you are closing your ears and mind so tightly against it, you will never understand American culture. What makes disjunct melody, rhythmic nuance and pitch bending automatically bad? Do you also think French speakers are silly because they have different sounds from those in English?

  3. richard says

    You’ve got to be kidding! I looked up the Vox Saeculorum website. Maybe I should send them some of my assignments from counterpoint classes. I was well taught in the French “Conservatoire de Paris”
    tradition (Gedalge “School of Fugue”). I haven’t noticed that there is a shortage of Baroque music.

  4. Dymitry Wos says

    I will never understand American “culture” anyway; there are other regions of the world with cultures I may never understand either. What I also will never understand is why people professionally involved with classical music are so apologetic about their own music and so concerned with defending things like blues, jazz, elderly millionaire rockstars, Hollywood, and American “culture” in general. Nor will I understand why those people have managed to run classical music into the ground with so little resistance.

    What makes those characteristics automatically bad is that they sound bad, which was a universally held view prior to the twentieth century, and even today there are many underground musicians who avoid using them. Compositional treatises devoted space in the early pages emphasizing conjunct motion and balancing skips properly, and the sheet music never specified that performers bend their viol strings up to different pitches.

    • says

      Dmitry, western culture in the past century has been profoundly influenced, musically, by cultures from various parts of the world, , especially Africa. Those cultures have their own ways of doing music, which now have been absorbed into the west. Classical mjusic needs to see itself as only one approach to music, because, in our current culture, that’s what it is. It hardly matters what the orthodox belief was in the past. Berlioz heard Chinese music in Paris, and thought it was ridiculous, because the musicians (though only by western standards) didn’t play in tune. We can’t think that way anymore! Which we’re doing, if we think the emphasis other cultures place on rhythm, texture, and microtonal inflections is inferior to what we stress in classical music.

      • Dymitry Wos says

        The idea that everyone in the western world belongs to a single monolithic culture has little to do with reality. Countless members of different underground music scenes openly express a strong aversion to most popular culture, in forum posts, interviews, and lyrics. They are more tolerant of poor technique than I am, but when they do complain, their criticisms are often similar to my own. My criticisms are just more technical, as I have more experience studying music theory than they do, and draw more heavily from classical principles, as their discussions are usually not related to classical music.

        If darkwave and martial bands can write pieces that avoid audible non-European elements, then obviously so can classical composers. Everything else is just an excuse.

        I mentioned compositional treatises not because I believe everything written in the past had to be correct, but because testing out their directions for myself provided generally very good results in spite of the variance between different authors writing in different countries and times. By looking at what they did have in common, it was easy to see that they shared underlying principles that worked well; abandoning those principles lead to poor results. The “orthodox view” may have held everything else in low regard, but it never encroached upon traditional music making in other regions of the world to the degree that corporate pop has. The way Berlioz reacted may not have helped diplomatic relations, but there are certainly enough people in China to support their own music, and few of them should lose any sleep over whether some people halfway around the world think it is out of tune.

        One only has to spend some time online to see through the obvious policy of one standard for classical listeners, another for everyone else. The only comment sections online where I have seen anyone babble about how “this other style is equally valid”, have been classical ones. The overwhelming majority of statements praising mainstream rock bands were posted on classical forums, and the minority of criticisms. One time I have actually seen someone start a topic complaining that another site claimed classical music was superior to other styles; this might have made sense had the forum been anything other than a classical forum. The list could go on for several times as long, yet in spite of that, it is the classical listeners who are constantly being reminded to show more humility or admiration for pop culture. One can contrast with the regulars at an industrial forum exchanging stories of how their music bothers other people in public, with one in the habit of telling any of his critics to “go listen to your whiny indie garbage”. What really is unfortunate is that there has been an influx of classical musicians in recent years who actually do listen to “whiny indie garbage”.

        It is nice to have so much condensed proof to show others both what a self-deprecating politically correct farce classical music has turned into, as well as that classical participants really do try to tell people how they can and cannot think (not that it would ever affect how I behave, but it was something others were incredulous about) in one convenient page, so this will be my final comment.

        • says

          Well, of course music is divided into tiny subcultures. Which often hate each other. This isn’t news. Lester Bangs talked about it in his Elvin obituary, back in 1977. The one whose final words were: “I won’t say goodbye to Elvis. I’ll say goodbye to you.” Because he and you doubtless listened to different music, as would not have been the case some years earlier.

          But note a difference between the sites you’re talking about, and the situation in classical music. If fans of dark metal hate indie rock and its fans, fine. Their genre supports itself in the marketplace, and doesn’t demand any special privileges.

          Classical music does demand them. It demands funding, public funding for its new concert halls, and education for schoolkids that gives it special prominence. Schools, in other words, should teach people to like classical music. I’ve seen jazz people demand the same for jazz, and also have heard it from a member of the Guitar Institute’s board, because (or so he said) not enough kids were studying the guitar, and so should be taught it in schools.

          Classical music backs up its demands with assertions of how much better classical music is. And also fails badly when going out into the world to find new listeners, because it doesn’t understand or respect the existing musical taste of the people its trying to reach.

          Nobody would seriously say that fans of combative pop genres are doing anything similar. They’re not demanding public money, and they’re not demanding that kids should be taught to like their music. This is why the situation in classical music is special, and needs to be fought.

  5. Dymitry Wos says

    I will never understand American “culture” anyway; there are other regions of the world with cultures I may never understand either. What I also will never understand is why people professionally involved with classical music are so apologetic about their own music and so concerned with defending things like blues, jazz, elderly millionaire rockstars, Hollywood, and American “culture” in general. Nor will I understand why those people have managed to run classical music into the ground with so little resistance.

    What makes those characteristics automatically bad is that they sound bad, which was a universally held view prior to the twentieth century, and even today there are many underground musicians who avoid using them. Compositional treatises devoted space in the early pages emphasizing conjunct motion and balancing skips properly, and the sheet music never specified that performers bend their viol strings up to different pitches, no matter how much feeling was intended.

  6. richard says

    Dim
    Dymitry,
    Do you know the music of Bartok? Can you not hear the non-western elements? You do realize, don’t you, that when he and Kodaly collected folk songs, some were collected in areas that were part of the former Ottoman Empire? This music was greatly influenced by middle eastern music, and can be found in Bartok’s work.

  7. richard says

    I’m sorry about the “dim”, I didn’t mean it. There is something buggy with the comment box. When I typed in the “Enter your comment here…” line didn’t go away, so I “tabbed” and started again. My apologies.