Whoa…this is the 23d year I’ve taught my course on the future of classical music, at Juilliard. Which gives an idea of how long the classical music crisis has been going on. Way back in 1997 there was concern enough about our future to get me invited to teach. And here I still am.
I always start by asking the students to tell me about themselves, and about why the course interests them. In recent years I’ve been hearing a lot about the perceived isolation of=lives i classical music, from the rest of our culture. One student talked this week about classical music being in a “bubble,” a term I’d use myself.
Or, to put it another way, classical music lives in a space of its own, away from the rest of our culture. And I’d say gap ’s bigger than most of us in the field might realize.
I could give examples from clueless pop culture references made by classical music groups when they reach to the outside world.
But why be negative? I’ll be constructive instead. With an example that shows…
What we need to do
My example comes from the widely read Lifehacker blog, which gives life tips — tech, cooking, finance, having fun, so much else — to mostly younger readers. I love it, read it every day.
On January 14, they had a delightful item called “What’s the Loudest Sound in the Universe?” A speculative, largely conceptual piece, of course, since there isn’t any sound in airless space, and so things like black holes and exploding stars, which create huge disturbances, can’t be heard.
But what if they could? What if we could hear the disturbances they make in plasma around them, the way we hear sound when it makes the air around us move?
Here comes the pop music reference
Much fun to think about. And the writer introduced the item this way:
The human tolerance for sound is, on a galactic level, puny. Volcano eruptions, jackhammer-intensive construction work, My Bloody Valentine concerts—these tinnitus-inducing phenomena are barely whispers besides the majestic, roiling bursts and collisions going on in outer space.
My Bloody Valentine concerts! Referring to an Irish-English band famous for its noise, active in the 1980s and ‘90s, revived in 2007. Not exactly pop chart material, but a major force in indie rock, and very influential. The Lifehacker writer — and of course his editors, the people who run the blog — figured readers would get the reference.
So that’s the world classical music lives in. A world where pop music references are common, where pop music of all kinds is part of the current culture. A world where people — at least the millennials, largely, who read Lifehacker — know who My Bloody Valentine is.
But do we know that world? The world the people we hope will be our future audience live in. Can we talk about, refer to, play with things they know and think about?
I’ll leave the answer to you. Adding only that we’d better move into that world, because if we don’t, how will we talk to the people we need to reach?
About My Bloody Valentine, from their Wikipedia entry:
Their music is best known for its merging of dissonant guitar textures with ethereal melody and unorthodox production techniques…
[Guitarist Kevin] Shields’ effects rig, which is composed largely of distortion, graphic equalizers and tone controls, consists of at least 30 effects pedals and is connected to a large number of amplifiers, which are often set to maximum volume to increase sustain.
During live performances, and in particular the closing song “You Made Me Realise”, My Bloody Valentine perform an interlude of noise and excessive feedback, known as “the holocaust”, which would last for half an hour and often reached 130db. \Shields later remarked “it was so loud it was like sensory deprivation. We just liked the fact that we could see a change in the audience at a certain point.”
Singer Bilinda Butcher was put low in the mix, behind the instrumental sounds, because Shields wanted her vocals to sound like an instrument. Sometimes she’d be awakened from sleep to record, making her buried vocals sound dreamy and sleepy.
Butcher wrote the band’s lyrics, sometimes guided by Shields’ demo tapes of his songs. The demos had no words, but Butcher tried, as she said, “to make his sounds into words.”
Hear My Bloody Valentine: This is “Only Shallow,” from their 1991 album Loveless.