They do not move

godot blogAs I replied to blog comments on my last post (about a coming tipping point), I found myself explaining why it’s hard for many classical music institutions to change, even if they want to.

Often I’m reminded of the very end of Waiting for Godot:

Well, shall we go?

Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.  

Of course, some institutions do make changes, and some don’t want to, because they’re in denial — they don’t think there’s a crisis, or they imagine things will turn around if they just keep doing what they always did.

Or else they’re stuck. They know that change is needed, but can’t imagine turning from their long-established mission, which of course is to play the same masterworks they’ve always played, in the same way they’ve always played them. So they’re caught in a trap. They need to change, but won’t change the biggest thing they do.

But the biggest problem is, you might say, structural. It’s built into how these institutions function. I’m thinking especially of orchestras, but the same problems can afflict opera companies, presenters, and even chamber groups. Someone I know who once ran a major chamber music organization (a household name in classical music) resigned, she told me, because, for the reasons I’m about to set forth, she couldn’t make the changes that she wanted to make.

Here’s the problem. Or, rather, three linked problems. First, these institutions are maxed out, in money and staff time, just doing what they’ve always done. Doesn’t give them much margin (to put it mildly) for conceiving, planning, and putting into motion something new.

Second, change is risky. You’re using resources (again, staff time and money) that you don’t really have. So what happens if your new initiative should fail? As well it might, because new initiatives so often do, precisely because they’re new. Commercial companies accept that. They launch a new product. It tanks in the market. So they move on to their next new product.

Classical music institutions aren’t set up to do that. Failure seems devastating. And they’re not good at coming up with new ideas. As Deborah Borda, the CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (and maybe the most skillful, most powerful manager of any US orchestra), told me years ago, orchestras don’t have R&D departments. They aren’t set up to look for new things to do.

Then there’s a third problem, which truly is a killer. These institutions in fact have to keep doing what they’ve always done, at least for now. Their audience may be shrinking, and their donor base is shrinking, too. But still they make the bulk of their ticket income from their old audience, and get the bulk of their donations from established donors. To keep this going — as they need to, just to survive month by month, year by year — they have to keep doing the performances their donors and their audience have always loved.

But at the same time, if they’re going to have a future, they also have to do something new! So they have to go down two paths at once, the old one and the new one. When they’re already maxed out, in money and in staff time! So how can they do something new?

What happens, all too often, is half-baked. These institutions do new things, but without strategizing them. They’ll launch a concert series aimed at a new audience, without answering some basic questions:

Is this meant to bring people to our main concerts? Or is it a new product line that should stand on its own?

How do we measure its success? Is it supposed to break even, to support itself through ticket sales? Or is it just as important as our main concerts, which means we have to get donations for it? How large an audience do we expect — or need — it to have?

How many years do we let it run, before we decide if it’s a success or a failure?

I’ve been involved in a project like this, launched by a major orchestra, without any strategizing. At the first sign of financial trouble, the plug got pulled. Which is no way to plan a future! The Met, by contrast, when it started streaming its productions to movie theaters, seemed to have a plan. It accepted financial losses for a while, funding the project with endowment money, expecting it eventually to at least break even, which after a while it did.

I’m sympathetic to all these problems. I understand why classical music institutions find it hard to change.

And yet — they have to. As they themselves (well, most of them) well know. But for many of them, change may happen only when the risk of not changing starts looming larger than the risk of change.

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  1. Scott says

    It seems to me that the two paths you speak of are between tonal music(older) and experimental music(newer). One problem is that there are hardly any tonal composers nowadays. The tonal composers that do exist write repetitive minimalist music, which is still kind of hard for the general public to get into. I think the general public like the tonality of older classical music, but there is a stigma that it’s “stuffy” and “elitist” because it’s old. That may be partially true, which is why we need modern composers who are willing to write tonal music with non-minimalist structure, that also has a contemporary style. I’m not saying experimental, a-tonal, minimalist music is bad, but I think contemporary classical music has pretty well narrowed itself to a small audience, just by the type of music it writes.

    • says

      Scott, I’d like to suggest a different perspective. The two paths are leading to two different groups of people – those who like the current offering, and those who currently won’t attend classical music concerts because they aren’t interested in the current offering. That has been my experience as a festival programmer. We need a more diverse range of musical experiences, including a much more diverse musical offering to increase our audiences, which leads to the idea that our new audience may not necessarily be the group of people who love what we are doing now. This can feel highly risky for organisations, but my statistics really prove this point: we had a ten-fold increase in attendance at the chamber music festival I was AD of over a four year period through a strategic plan to retain a core number of traditional concerts that our subscribers had come to expect, plus lots of new initiatives. Everything new, however, was not designed for our subscribers. It was, quite deliberately, designed for other people. People with babies, or little kids, or people who wanted to hear experimental music really late at night, or new commissions. You name it. I think we absolutely have to stop looking in the accepted directions – read management and the current audience member – for ideas and guidance about how change should occur and how it should work. If these two groups had the answers, things would already be different. On your final point, I don’t think that contemporary classical music is the only genre of art music that has got itself into a niche. More tonal music, like that which you describe, is also very much a niche music, but even more so, the traditional concert experience is becoming an increasingly small niche too. So it isn’t just about the repertoire, it is also about the nature of the experience, which I think less and less people (particularly young people) have time for. And that’s a shame, because a lot of the music – old and new – is terrific.

      • says

        Nicole you have so hit the nail on the head with your statement on looking to management and the current audience for ideas. I am wondering how much the festival you curated looked toward the artists performing or creating new works rather than those who hold the proverbial purse strings? I have witnessed the festival’s continued growth over a number of years and having some details about exactly how you developed it and how it continues to develop would be very useful I think.

    • says

      Scott, I’m a little surprised by what you say. There have always been tonal composers, even at the height of the atonal dominance of the 1960s and ’70s. And there still are. I mean tonal composers who aren’t minimal. My God, just look at the new operas that are premiered in the US, for instance Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick, or Ricky Ian Gordon’s Grapes of Wrath. Or so many others. Most new operas premiered these days, in the US, are tonal, I’d venture to guess.

      And then there are all the younger composers whose style blends with pop music. They’re likely to be tonal, too.

      As for the general public, that’s a more complex issue. The classical music audience mostly doesn’t like atonal or minimal music. But that’s not the general public. It’s a tiny niche. A new, younger audience doesn’t seem to have any trouble with new classical music in general, atonal or not. Any indie rock fan is fine with challenging, dissonant music.

      Composing styles, in any case, evolve on their own, and are moving in fabulous directions. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a time with so much interest in so many kinds of new music, classical new music included.

      • Scott says

        Oh ok. I haven’t really heard of many modern tonal composers. I’ll keep looking. But by tonal, I meant using the tonality of Beethoven or Brahms for instance. Much of what is considered tonal now I find very avante-gard. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the amount of dissonance used by Beethoven, but I’ve essentially been told not to do that by multiple composition professors.

        • says

          Your composition teachers are wrong. You — any composer — can write any kind of music you like. But on your part, you should inform yourself better. That goes for all of us, me included. We should all be wary of making big pronouncements without taking time to inform ourselves about what’s really going on.

    • says

      Hi Scott, besides arranging nearly a hundred symphnic and piano works for a mixed octet, I began composing tonal works blending various amounts of urban pop with classical counterpoint, form and development. Click on my name to stream samples. Sadly, I can’t get any traction, perhaps because I fall into this crack of not composing “contemporary” music and not speaking in thick academic language about high ideals. I just wanted to write the music that I love to play and that might renew interest in the conventional canon which is my favorite. You tell me if this is what you mean and if so, please help me come to your community to play some with your local musicians. I’m ready to orchestrate these works on request. Thanks!

      • Scott says

        I really like the song “Pork N’ Beans”. Do you think you have trouble gaining traction because the established classical ensembles don’t support your style? Or because the audience doesn’t care for it? As for the shows, I don’t really have any connections, yet 😉 I’ll keep you in mind though.

  2. says

    Perhaps the problem here is about hierarchical structures too? I was talking to a friend/colleague the other day, a great musician who has a permanent full-time position in an orchestra. We were discussing the kind of new directions that could and should be taken by orchestras, all the experiments that they might try. The one thing that kept putting a damper on the conversation was how helpless she felt to put any ideas into action. She intimated that any discussion of the players’ suggestions, if they were forthcoming at all, would take months to happen, if at all. The orchestras and opera companies are huge machines and like all big corporations move at a pretty slow rate. This was the source of my friend’s considerable frustration.

    Perhaps the powers that be could encourage smaller groups of their players to self produce smaller scale ‘experimental’ events of their own, but still under the umbrella of the orchestra. It could work a bit like the way fringe festivals work. Each one of these smaller groups would need to apply to be a part of it. They’d be required to show exactly how it might communicate with new audiences, or how it might improve the image of the orchestra so it doesn’t seem stuffy/distant, or how something new could be created in collaboration with a community. (Certainly in a country the size of Australia, it’s really difficult for people who live way out in the bush to get to quality performances). If funding was a problem, they could get imaginative with online crowdfunding campaigns.

    Anywayy, what I’m trying to say is that all the responsibility shouldn’t be on the management and artistic leadership. All the members of the orchestra should be creating these experiments, thinking laterally, putting their creative skills to the test. If they’re scared of creativity or need some help, well, they know were to find me.

    • Scott says

      That’s one of the things I enjoyed about working with a non-classical brass band. Anyone’s ideas could be put into place instantly, often involving improvosation to change an existing song.

  3. Lawrence de Martin says

    Music is not notes. It is at minimum a sound expressing a feeling, narrative or description; and best when a conversation. The 19th Century orchestral paradigm has encouraged passivity and abandoned curiosity. The performers consider their job done when the quavers are dotted and the italianate directions crossed from the list. The audience think their job is to sit and hopefully not fiddle and cough.

    The genius of Cage was forcing active participation of the performer and audience. This may never be popular (pull is more attractive than push), but it is an excellent exercise for kick starting the conversation. He also accepted and integrated the reality of urban cultural centricity in the search for beauty. The micro-sounds of Feldman, Lachenmann and Sciarrino are lost in the rumble of the City so I have been forced to invent suitable amplification to present them.

    The tonal/atonal debate is a Red Herring. One might as well ask if music should be loud or soft, fast or slow, solo or tutti. During the prior peaks in quality of popular music (Baroque and Jazz eras), dissonance was employed in contrast to harmony including refined micro-tonality. Compositions of unyielding dissonance (parallel or serial) are not going to pull audience from Classical patronage dynasties nor followers of four chord rock songs; but even-tempered diatonic scale is like limiting painting to red, green and blue.

    Likewise, arrhythmic or pure quarter note lines are fatiguing. Popular music throughout history and across cultures has had two commonalities: melody and rhythm. However hard it is to create something novel within those constraints, that is the task.

    • Scott says

      I agree that more interesting rhythms are attractive to younger audiences. I think that’s part of the reason that older classical isn’t so popular.

    • ariel says

      Music is ordered sound that expresses nothing ….it is what the listener brings to it that transforms the
      sounds into” meaningful music ” as the listener reasons it . The composer now and then may help guide the listener by giving a work a title, take both away and you have sounds that mean nothing .The rest of the argument is specious

      • Lawrence de Martin says

        It seems that your conscious mind has been programmed to filter out non-verbal information. It is true music does not translate to words, but that does not make it meaningless. I think the opposite is true – words are vague in emotional content until they are sung, tapping the unconscious, non-verbal connections between people. The majority of physical senses are filtered out to make sense of the world to our limited processing capability, music opens you up to more information and knowledge if you let it. I believe this is why “Music Makes You Smarter”, as in the current popular psychology.

    • says

      Interesting thoughts. But, with all respect, there’s a danger in theorizing too much. You mention Sciarrino, and say his evocative, tiny sounds get lost in the rumble of the big city. That certainly wasn’t true when his music was first played in New York. It made quite a sensation. People loved it. As has happened with Feldman as well. Also remember the great success, a while ago, of MTV Unplugged. Acoustic pop music found a large audience (and still does), no matter what rumbles surround it. You could even say the rumbles are a reason for its success. It’s an antidote.

      • Lawrence de Martin says

        I have several DVDs of the “Unplugged” MTV concerts. That is one of my inspirations, proof that the audience does not require distortion even though bar managers, record producers and engineers find it essential. There still needs to be a mechanism for keeping that same quality of sound for economically viable venue sizes, and that means is not PA systems.

        For the PPPP passages in New Music, some venues are well isolated like Weill Auditorium, the Mary Cary Flagler and Guilder-Lehrman halls but most chamber halls admit subway rumble like Zankel or street noise; and most New Music venues have noisy ventilation like Le Poisson Rouge and the Miller Theater.

        I am not theoretical – I attacked the problem physically and won. It has been my practice to amplify this type of music with my “violin speakers”. These are dedicated designs for reproducing every aspect of natural violin family acoustics timbral, temporal and spatial. I have had 100% approval of this means to present the music, as the quality of the quiet passages is elevated to match the higher threshold of silence of city dwellers and the sound is transparent even to conservatory trained audiences.

  4. N Weber says

    Looking at your financial analysis of the “tipping point” and the reasons why organizations don’t change – it seems that the problem explains the response. If an orchestra is doing well financially, it doesn’t see the need to change or experiment. Only when they reach a financial crisis do they really understand the urgency, yet most crises are due to a lack of funds.

    I am still left in awe of everything that happened in San Francisco in the last few weeks. The musicians had a legitimate complaint (that they were not being given cost of living increases), yet they framed it in the worst possible way (we are not the highest paid musicians in this country!). Meanwhile, the Orchestra is engaging in a $300 million renovation of the hall – money that could go a long way to expanding programs and initiatives at the symphony. They are doing well at this moment, they invest in infrastructure instead of a long-term plan for generating interest.

    • says

      Good points. I’d add one nuance. Often funds can be raised for some projects that aren’t available for others. So the orchestra may well have found donors willing to support the hall renovation who wouldn’t support anything else. But the orchestra still made a choice to devote other resources to the renovation, including staff time and energy, which they might have devoted to a longterm plan.

      Most orchestras are in financial trouble, whether they say so publicly or not. So they ought to be making longterm plans. As I should have said in the post, it’s a little like global warming. We know we’re facing big trouble, but it’s still far enough away that we sit here not doing much about it. Short-sighted, but very human.

  5. says

    Hi Sally,
    Having served in a major orchestra, I’m delighted to discover several orchestras begining to empower their musicians to lead their own outreach or educational events. Many call this a “service exchange” program where musicians have the responsibility to develop, market and manage each event to earn say two weeks of service credits (vacation or extra pay). A committee approves projects and the number of applicable service count.
    Another way is a sign up for outreach events under the orchestra’s banner. The management takes responsibility in this case to ensure the event (usually a concert) meets the standards of the institution because they’re usually in affluent neighborhoods and are ticketed. You can bet there is no risk-taking allowed here, certain exceptions notwithstanding.

    By nature I’m prone to experiment because my orchestra, including its musicians, only saw “dumbing down” and “low class” where I saw vast opportunities to “warm up” classical music. So I had to make my own contracts, often shell out my own money, and break my own back to develop three CutTime ensembles which experimented to create a NEW standard. They received VERY positive feedback as long as they were independent. So I resigned the orchestra to work more independently and eventually see out my career as creatively as possible.

    Orchestras feel they have a lot to lose by “getting real” and the necessary shift of perspective represents a reversal of much of what we believed in (not to mention much more volunteer work). It will be impossible for most stakeholders to make this shift. Of those who can, only a fraction (let’s say 1/3) have the energy to imagine, lead and produce such efforts that really make connections with NEW audiences. Now that most states have smoking bans, the BEST results I’ve seen are events (concerts or readings) in bars, clubs, restaurants and cafes. Fortunately a group of The Cleveland Orchestra musicians have officially broken the mold working independently, and now the administration is backing them up. But to reach the most people, these concerts are nec. free of charge and a great boon for The Happy Dog.

    But let’s be frank, the vast majority of folk who never attend orchestra concerts don’t really care if the bar performance is under-rehearsed: they’re just glad you showed up and will talk to them! No matter what, it’s good enough… and DIFFERENT enough to keep them coming back and talk it up to their peeps… and that’s all that really matters here. Chamber music is that close encounter with classical music that will save its future… but only when we can let go of our fears of being judged. Do it with a spirit of sharing and love, then real CONNECTION becomes the quality we seek.

    • says

      Hullo Rick,

      I’ve sooo enjoyed checking out your website, all the things that you’re doing. Great work! And If I ever get around to establishing a chamber music ensemble (which I’ve been meaning to do for years) I’ll be getting in touch with you for a few of your original works. Nice one!

      I know there are a good number of musicians doing wonderful and interesting things independently of the big orchestras and opera companies. What I would like to see is more of the company management acknowledging and encouraging this activity in an official capacity. Perhaps that might give more of their musicians license and opportunity to do what they can to show the breadth of talents present within the ensembles. It’s a niggling little point of mine I know, but I suspect that such support from above has quite a strong impact.

      • says

        Sal, I think you’ll like Rick’s music. He writes with a lot of grace, and somehow creates the sound we’d hear everywhere if the traditions of classical music and blues and R&B had fused, instead of separating. A real achievement, I think. He brings these sounds together in the most natural way, with no sense of forcing, or even that he’s doing anything new. It’s as if music had always been that way.

    • says

      Rick, I want to thank you for your many long, passionate, thoughtful comments. Which are based on real experience with the things we’re talking about. You make a big contribution to the discussions here!

      • says

        Can you tell I’m blushing? Thanks Greg… I’m really inspired by your articulate posts and friends. We are a team trying to describe the unseen side of the coin by putting ourselves in the shoes of those we’d like to see attend our concerts. One way to do this is for musicians to actually JOIN an audience anonymously and LISTEN without judgement to what people notice, value and conclude. Yet another is to imagine what it would take to get us to attend an art form we don’t think we like. The answers will point to our own.

  6. says

    I just discovered this article, an interview with Ivan Fischer. He says a few good things about the future of his orchestra.

    “One way in which I try to encourage creativity is limiting the number of weeks each player has with the main orchestra, so they can spend some time on their own projects. When they join I always want to know what their passion is. If it’s to play a solo role they could have maybe a concerto date — we have a public audition for that. If someone has an interest in older classical music, or new music, then I say: here’s a date, organise your own concert. Within the orchestra itself, we have different groupings, some for really old music, some for contemporary music.
    It’s all a matter of keeping routine away, and in that respect I like to think we start where other orchestras stop.”

    The whole article’s worth a read.

    • Lawrence de Martin says

      Every composition starts with an idea in one person’s head. That idea always has an intended orchestration and acoustic even if it is unconscious on the part of the composer and ambiguous in the score. Why does Ivan Fischer consider it strange that Early Music be played by Historically Informed Practitioners on original instruments in OPP ensembles and interiors or exteriors where the piece was intended for performance when written? 

      Why should it be strange that New Music specialists who practice extended technique and contemporary vocabulary daily can peer through the sketchy details of score into the architecture and meaning in a way that standard repertoire players can not? The Romantic Orchestra and 19th Century halls are poor vehicles for these musickes which depend far more on articulation, micro-sounds, micro-tones, micro-rhythms and pauses that can’t be expressed by massed strings or winds amid heavy reverberations.

      At least he is taking constructive action, forming HIP and New Music sub-groups.