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November 28, 2005

Episode 3: What Is Classical Music, Anyway?

Apologies. Episode four was delayed for many reasons, among them my workload. I'm going to give myself a Christmas break, and post the new episode after the holidays, on January 9. Then I'll resume my performance, and post something new every other week. My best holiday wishes to everyone, and apologies to those of you who flattered me no end by coming to the site more than once to look for the episode that never arrived. I may alter the format or content of episodes, since I'm thinking now that the book should be organized somewhat differently. But I'll see about all that in January. Have a terrific holiday!

The first four online episodes make up part one of the book, which serves as an introduction to the problems classical music is having. In part two, I’ll look at those problems in much more detail. Part three will look at the rest of our culture, finding deeper reasons for the classical music crisis, and also suggesting directions any solution will have to go in. Part four will look to the future, and offer some solutions.

This is the third episode of part one. Here’s what I said in episodes one and two (these summaries have been tweaked to include changes I’ll be making to the final text):

Classical music is in trouble. Ticket sales are falling, the audience is getting older, classical music organizations have trouble raising money; media coverage is shrinking, there’s a lot less classical music on the radio, and the classical record business is collapsing (or at least the largest classical record labels are). Classical music also plays a smaller part in our culture than it used to. In 1962 a major national magazine commissioned a piano piece from Aaron Copland, then America’s most famous living composer; it then printed the piece, in musical notation, for its readers to play. That would never happen now.

And I myself, a life-long classical music professional, find myself drawn away from classical music. As I started writing all this, I was listening to a Cuban singer from the 1950s, Beny Moré, who plays with rhythm in ways no classical musician would. Many non-classical musicians do that, and they offer a challenge to classical music. What have we shut ourselves off from? Or maybe—since classical music used to be just as rhythmic as Beny Moré, and classical performers just as willful and insistent—we should ask a more wistful question. What have we forgotten?

It’s also clear that classical music can be hard for outsiders to approach, even if they like to listen to it. Mark, the man who’s been cutting my hair for almost 20 years, loves jazz, especially jazz piano, but sometimes goes to the classical department at Tower Records to look at classical CDs. He’s confused by what he sees—CDs that feature composers and performers he’s never heard of, CDs with all their information written in foreign languages. Once, though, he saw something he could relate to, an extensive series of two-CD sets called Great Pianists of the 20th Century. These—especially since he loves piano music—jumped out at him from the blank confusion of everything else.

Someone else I know, a therapist named Jed, never goes to hear classical music. But he loves Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and once, when he was walking by Lincoln Center, he saw a poster for a concert where the Pastoral was going to be played. Impulsively he bought a ticket. But he never went back. There was nothing at the concert that made him feel that he was welcome, nothing in posters for any other concert that seized his attention, nothing in any part of his experience that drew him back again to Lincoln Center to hear anything else. He connected, as Mark did, with the classical music world. But the connections happened almost at random, and classical music hasn’t done anything to bring either man back.

And then there’s the music itself. I myself love the Pastoral Symphony, for its tunefulness, for how free it is from any strain or striving, for its loving craftsmanship, and for the way it breaks apart the normal frame of any symphony, connecting its last three movements in a single sweeping narrative. But in performance, the narrative can lose its force, because the symphony (like every classical masterwork) is performed too often. Even if there might be people in the audience who don’t know at every moment what’s going to happen next, the musicians know it, and so it’s hard to imagine, unless somebody develops some new and highly individual way to play the piece, how the Pastoral can ever sound quite fresh.

And the conclusion of the piece—in which Beethoven gives heartfelt thanks because a thunderstorm has ended—might, to a modern audience, seem naïve. None of us reacts to storms this way. Of course there are other ways to understand the music, either as a look at history (helping us to understand what storms felt like centuries ago), or as something different from what Beethoven intended, a recovery, perhaps, from some trauma deeper than a storm. But still we can’t escape from the surface of the music, which, as Beethoven himself told us, was meant to evoke the countryside, with birds, a brook, dancing peasants, and finally the storm and the rejoicing after it. So how should we understand all that? And what are we to make of a classical music world that spends so much of its time and energy on music from the past?

That was episode one. Episode two began by asking deeper questions about Jed’s concert experience. What happens at a classical concert? Everything is very formal, and in the audience are older people, largely dressed in business clothes. Jed, who wears a ponytail, might have felt out of place, though to be fair, I’m sure that wouldn’t have surprised him. Like all of us, he knows what classical concerts are like. Still, he would feel out of place, so how much would he have to love the music, before he’d want to come back and feel out of place again?

And the formality causes other problems, which I’m now going to recapitulate, at the start of my third episode.


When I ended episode two with thoughts about the formality of classical music—the formal dress the musicians wear, the suits and ties in the audience, the immobile silence of the classical concert hall—I could have been more charitable. I did say that some musicians think that putting on their formal clothes gets them ready to perform, and that many people (in the audience, and on the staffs of classical music performing groups) think that the formality sets the music in relief. If nothing’s going to happen on stage—if every performance looks the same as every other one—then the music ought to be the thing we focus on.

But there’s more than that. Some people (as I should have said) just love the glamour of classical music. They love dressing up to go to concerts; they love the lavish concert halls; if they go to the Metropolitan Opera, they love the staircase, luxurious and grand, that rises from the lobby, leading upward to the tiers of balconies.

And Julian Johnson, a British academic, has a more ethereal (but also resonant) argument, which he offers in his 2002 book Who Needs Classical Music? I’m going to spend some time with Johnson later in this episode, and even more in episode four, because, as far as I know, his is the only book about the classical music crisis. But I also need to pay attention to it because it’s so wrong, and wrong in ways typical of what many people in classical music think. It’s also a desolate book, in ways that unfortunately grow right out of what it says; it’s lost in hopelessness, despite its constant talk about the great vistas of human possibility that classical music opens (and which, as Johnson painfully believes, other kinds of music, especially pop, slam shut).

Outwardly, [he writes] classical music appears highly repressed. Its dress codes, body language, restraint, and formality all seem to point to a denial of the bodily.

(And also, maybe, to a rejection of direct and forceful language. Why not simply write, “a denial of the body”?)

Above all [he continues ] the image of the classically trained listener, sitting silent and immobile throughout the performance, would suggest that classical music shuns the immediacy of bodily expression.…But classical music is based not so much on a denial of the body as on a different balance between its bodily and nonbodily elements. Much classical music is rooted in the bodily but aims at transcending, without denying, those physical origins.…Classical music comes from the body but is about being more than the body: it enacts the quitting of the body through the bodily—hence its fundamentally ritualistic, mythical power, representing in the physicality of the body our spiritual aspiration to be more than bodies.

And hence also the formality of classical music, which keeps the body in check so that we can transcend it. Maybe you remember the George Clinton quote from my first episode: “Free your mind, and your ass will follow.” Julian Johnson’s version might be, “Free your mind, and you don’t have to think about your ass (which in any case is too bodily to bother with).” Formality, he seems to think, can free the mind.

And sometimes it can. But in my second episode I suggested that in classical music, it also hides a lot. Here we are, sitting in the audience, transcending our bodies (or simply getting off on the glamour of the hall, and the aura of great art). And in the program book are program notes so dense and scholarly that most of us can’t understand them. Maybe, just maybe, that might add in some way to the glamour, at least for some people; maybe great art is supposed to be beyond us. But it’s hard to see, at least among people who take thinking seriously, exactly how impenetrable writing can move us toward transcendence. The Bible, it’s true, says that the peace of God “passeth all understanding,” but that just means that God’s peace is wordless, not that we can’t understand it because we don’t have graduate degrees in musicology.

But I don’t have to be sarcastic. Behind the formality of classical concerts lies what in episode two I called “an odd blankness.” And that’s something to feel desolate about. What happened to art, involvement, meaning, creativity? Somehow, at classical performances, all of these are hard to find. The audience gets passive, and the musicians in many ways are passive, too. Here’s a list of ways in which this happens:

The program notes, as I’ve said, typically go right over the audience’s head.

Alongside this, bafflingly, are other items in the program book that might read like a chatty community newspaper. So the audience, on one hand, is apparently presumed to be eager and undemanding, and on the other hand is treated as if everybody in it was a serious classical music scholar.

The audience is never told what’s going on behind the scenes, why (for instance) there are five French horns on stage when the program book says the composer said there should be four.

The audience is never told what the musical goals of the performance might be, how this performance of whatever masterwork is being heard might differ from any other one—or, for that matter, why the masterwork is being played at all, especially in combination with the two or three or four other pieces placed together with it on the concert program. I’ve led conversations with members of the audience for two major orchestras. Sometimes, once they feel they have permission to say anything they want, these people ask very pointed questions. Clearly they’ve felt left out. There’s a lot they’d love to know. But the people in the audience are never brought inside an orchestra’s planning, in part because, far from being thought of as any kind of co-participants in concerts, they’re seen as stubborn conservatives, who’ll stand in the way of important programming, especially of newly written music. I’ll never forget the prominent classical music personality, author of many important books, who told me with great excitement about some broadcasts of new classical music that the BBC had done. I asked him if the BBC had polled its listeners to find out which of the composers presented on this series they’d liked best. And he was outraged! Imagine asking the people in the audience what they liked! What a horror that would be! They’d make the wrong choices!)

Or, maybe, if we talked to them, they’d make choices that surprised us, or maybe they’d understand our choices better, and be more ready to support them. But these conversations never happen. The communication goes only one way—from the classical performing group down to the audience. I’m reminded here of the medieval concept of the Great Chain of Being, in which authority flowed from God down through the Catholic Church, finally reaching the ordinary people at the bottom of the chain, whose only role was to accept, passively, everything that they were told. Isn’t that what we find in classical music? Musical authority flows downward from the immortal composers to the musicians who play their works, and then downward again to the people in the audience, who sit at the bottom of the chain, where they’re asked to passively accept everything they’re given.

And the musicians, too, are often passive. Orchestral musicians have very little control over the music that they make. They aren’t  treated as co-participants by most of the conductors who lead them; they’re simply asked to do as they’re told. After concerts there’s no chance for discussion, no forum where the musicians can offer their thoughts about how the concert went. Opera singers and musicians playing chamber music have more freedom, since opera singers are soloists, and in chamber musicians just a few musicians join together, working as collaborators, without a formal leader. But still they’re often circumscribed by their training, since typically they’re taught a lot of rules they have to follow—rules about how each composer should be played, rules about how musicians ought to move while they’re playing (or, more likely, about how they shouldn’t move at all), rules about what kinds of playing have to be forbidden, because they’re too original, or take too much freedom with the music, and hence are thought to be excessive.

As a result of all this, musicians often come before an audience with their enthusiasm dampened, even if they themselves don’t realize it. They’re not prepared to wow the audience, or to give, no matter how the audience reacts, performances that no one could forget. They’re strangely circumscribed: careful, respectable, well-bred.

Add to this some other curiosities. The people  who work for major orchestras typically don’t go to concerts. Almost never in the office of the orchestra will people come to work and talk about the music. Isn’t there something wrong with this? I’ve talked to a consultant who’s worked both with orchestras and with theater companies, and he’s stunned by what he finds in orchestras. In a theater company, people come to the office the day after a new production opens, and the production is all that they can talk about (the play, the acting, the directing, the sets and costumes, everything). But at orchestras, after a concert, no one says a word. If this is great art, where’s the depth, the transcendence, or even the certainty, both audible and visible, that everybody’s giving everything they’ve got?

I finished the last episode by quoting something from Christopher Small’s book Musicking:

This is the great paradox of the symphony concert, that such passionate outpourings of sound are being created by staid-looking ladies and gentle­men dressed uniformly in black and white, making the minimal amount of bodily gesture that is needed to produce the sounds, their expressionless faces concentrated on a piece of paper on a stand before them, while their listeners sit motionless and equally expressionless listening to the sounds. Neither group shows any outward sign of the experience they are all presumably undergoing.

And neither group communicates with the other. Neither group has power to change the way the concert goes. Neither group may understand just why the pieces on the concert were programmed to be played together. There really is kind of desolation here. which could be described, as a cultural theorist might, as one result of what happens when “the historical and semiotic specificity of classical music, on its own turf, has all but vanished, when the classical canon is defined and marketed as a reliable set of equally great and ineffable collectibles.” (I’m quoting from Robert Walser’s Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, a revelatory study of metal by a classically trained musicologist.) When the music loses its meaning, there’s nothing for all of us involved in it to talk about.

But I’d turn that around, and say that there’s also, in the simplest terms, a failure to allow any real human contact. And that helps to rob the music of its meaning, and of course its power. No wonder it’s hard to find a new audience for classical concerts. There’s nobody speaking to it there.


That was my revision of the end of episode two. And as I start episode three, it’s a perfect segue to an idea that’s eagerly embraced inside the classical music world (and especially embraced, I think, by saddened members of the audience, who love classical music, see their numbers growing smaller, don’t see younger people at classical concerts, and are understandably upset by the thought that classical music might disappear)—the idea that the classical audience is disappearing because classical music is no longer taught in our schools.

I’m touched by this view, or maybe by the strong emotion that lies behind it. But I’m also wary, because I think there’s at least a whiff of something self-serving here: “It’s not our fault that a new generation doesn’t care about classical music. It’s the schools’ fault. It’s society’s fault. Everyone would love our music, if they only had the chance to learn about it!” Which of course means that we ourselves, we classical music people, don’t need to change the way we play our music, the way we present it, or the way we think and talk about it. The whole problem is someone else’s fault. Someone else should change—society should change, the schools should change, and once again our children should be educated to see things the way we’d like them to.

Not, of course, that this is going to happen. And even if it did, why should music education—which I myself would like to see restored, of course—be completely or even mainly classical? Don ‘t more Americans know Beethoven (at least from movies like A Clockwork Orange, and also from his huge prestige, and from ringtones of the “Ode to Joy” and “Für Elise”) than are likely to know Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, richly American musicians with tremendous depth and substance in their work?

Of course, somebody might say that Louis Armstrong, with his colloquial American sound, is easier to grasp than Beethoven, but is that really true? I could argue in return that Beethoven sounds very clearly classical, and is therefore easy to place in current culture, while Armstrong, at least to someone new to him, might sound simply old. (And I do know one thing: It’s a lot easier to hear Beethoven on the radio than the stunning records Armstrong made in the 1920s with his Hot Five and Hot Seven, which amaze me because, quite apart from their verve, force, and unstoppable sense of fun, none of them are built like simple pop or jazz songs, and no two of them, in their explosive variety, seem to be structured quite alike.)

But even if it’s true that Louis Armstrong is easier to understand than Beethoven, there still are crucial American musicians like Robert Johnson, the most powerful and forlorn of the Delta blues singers, whom many of us aren’t likely to understand without some preparation. For one thing, he mumbles his words, which first of all makes it hard to understand his songs, but also makes it seem, from a refined perspective, that he can’t be taken seriously. Why isn’t he just some bumbler from the depths of rural Mississippi, who couldn’t even speak, let alone sing or write music?

But a greater problem comes from something that people used to classical music—people familiar with its formal processes—ought to be equipped to understand. Blues, as it happens, is a very formal music, in which nearly every song has the same structure, built from the same simple chords repeated in more or less the same simple patterns. Its sophistication, therefore, comes from what each blues musician does with this more or less unchanging form, in which the “more or less” (along with the unique sound each singer has) can be a home for art.

Johnson’s habit is to smudge the formal patterns, to apparently evade them, to slide away from them with his voice, just when the chords might be finishing their sequence. So we get distracted from the sequence, even though it’s clearly there. If we know the blues, we can follow this, and find it haunting, as if Johnson’s lost inside the standard ways of life, and might either be despairing, or be trying to escape.

But if we don’t know the blues, he might simply sound chaotic; I’ve encountered expert classical musicians who couldn’t follow what he’s dong. So if everyone should be educated to understand classical music…well, you can see where this is going. I don’t mean to be an absolutist; maybe Johnson’s really not for everyone. But neither is classical music. And Johnson connects directly with our lives, because he’s at the root of music like rock and R&B that we hear now.

But then this troublesome notion that I’m looking at—that classical music might disappear unless people are taught (forcibly taught?) to understand it—also is involved with another, more fundamental belief. This is the belief that classical music inherently is abstract, and therefore complicated, or at least that it depends on abstract musical structures that people need to learn about. (Just like Robert Johnson.)

But is this true? I’m not so sure. Certainly nobody had to be educated to like classical music in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it flourished, and when in fact it was the only musical game in town; when women fainted during performances of one of Rossini’s operas, because a love duet was so intense (the opera, if anybody’s curious, was Armida); or when Mozart (as we saw in episode two) manipulated his audience to make them applaud right in the middle of his Paris Symphony. In those days, the music we now call classical spoke to people as readily as pop music speaks to us now. So maybe classical music only seems complex to us—complex enough to require education—because we’re distant from it. Of course it’s true that classical pieces tend to be longer than most pop songs (though not longer than all of them, as people posting comments have been pointing out), and that classical pieces are written in musical forms—sonata form, theme and variations, chorale prelude, passacaglia—that some of us get worshipful about, imagining that they have an almost sacred significance.

But to people in Mozart’s time (the late 18th century), or Beethoven’s (the early 19th century), or Bach or Handel’s (the first half of the 18th century), these forms were simply the ways in which music was written. You absorbed them as you’d absorb anything you encountered in your life, only partly consciously, but comfortably enough so you could follow what was going on.

And in any case—let me whisper this, in case classical music purists are offended—these forms aren’t really very complicated. Nor are they abstract. They’re brought to life by things in music that anyone can hear. Suppose we’re listening to a theme and variations; the music changes mood and character at the start of each new variation. When Bach wrote a chorale prelude, anyone in his time could follow what goes on in it, since it’s all about the gradual unfolding of a hymn tune that everyone would know. Sonata form rather famously—famously, at any rate, for anyone who’s ever studied classical music—is in three parts, but the difference between these parts is often vivid, the whole point being that each one presents either something new, or else the fulfilling return of something we’ve heard before, and gotten used to. It’s a mistake to think these things  always will require training to perceive. If you’ve listened to All Things Considered on NPR, you’ve heard the show’s musical logo, and probably noticed—even smiled at—the witty little ways in which it’s constantly transformed. Why should it be any harder to follow similar (and in fact often much less subtle) musical changes in a classical piece?

But if the piece is old, there might be a reason, but it’s not about complexities of abstract structure; it’s about cultural cues. Music of the past was full of cues that everyone who heard it understood. People would know when the music was peppy, or when it sounded sad, or when it deviated from some standard form, or when it pictured the ascension of Christ to heaven, or when it took off from the rhythm of a dance that everybody knew, or when somebody like Mozart sent a symphony into overdrive, to make everyone applaud. (Not, of course, that some pieces weren’t more complex than others, or that people didn’t react differently, according to their personal taste or cultural preferences, just as all of us do now.)

But now these cues may not communicate, or at least may not communicate so strongly. This doesn’t mean the music doesn’t sound expressive, but it’s not as vividly expressive—not by half—as it surely was when it was new. The differences (between one piece and another, or one part of a piece and another part) don’t stand out as sharply as they did. Imagine that you’re hearing Barry Manilow and hiphop, and can’t quite sense that they’re very different, unless you’re concentrating very hard. (If that seems extreme, go to a concert that begins with a Rossini overture and then continues with a Mozart symphony, and try to hear why Italians in Rossini’s time thought Mozart wrote heavy, dull, confusing stuff, without any melody.)

So maybe we shouldn’t study the abstractions of classical music; maybe we should just play the music more vividly, so that differences between one moment and another sound completely unmistakable. (Of course, there’s also more current classical music, which speaks in languages of our own time. But it may not speak in any language that many people know, a difficulty—not often enough faced up to—that I’ll address in part two of my book.)

And there are other problems, too—rather obvious problems—with the idea that education can save classical music. It would take too long; by the time we’d educated our brand-new audience, a generation for now, classical music (given how serious its current difficulties are) might be out of business.

And what kind of power do we have—all of us in the classical music world—to bring music education back? Aren’t there obstacles (social, political, and economic) standing in our way? Do people want their taxes raised to pay for classical music in their schools? Where will the money come from? How much political influence do we have? Who are the elected officials who we can convince to give our effort high priority?

But let’s go back for just a minute to all that classical formality. This, I think, makes the music education project really hopeless. Because music education—even if we restored it everywhere—would never work. We could teach everyone about Bach and Mozart, but that wouldn’t be enough. We’d also have to get people to go to classical concerts, and that would mean we’d have to train them to be passive, to not ask questions, to accept everything that happens, even if they don’t understand it.

And how can we do that, four decades after the 1960s brought most of us a more relaxed, more expressive way of living? Even the president of the United States appears on TV without a jacket and tie. We’ve learned to get loose, to dress more casually, to ask what things should mean to us (and to accept pop music as serious art, but that’s another story, to be told a little later in this book). And while of course these changes weren’t thorough or complete, they’ve kept on going, and affect us in new ways even now. How can we ask younger people, people who’ve made their own websites, who’ve started their own blogs, who’ve played in bands and written their own music, to come to classical concerts and sit there in utter, reverent silence, accepting everything they see and everything they’re told, including things that insult their intelligence, things that make no sense?

They won’t do it. Of course a few people will get drawn in, as they always do; I hear a lot of stories about people who went to a classical concert one night, and got completely hooked. And of course they exist, just as people exist who fall in love with Mongolian throat singing, or forgotten TV shows, or obscure specialties in microbiology. That’s the wonder and diversity of life.

But not enough people are getting hooked on classical music. And that’s not because there isn’t enough music education. It’s our own fault. Before we can attract a new audience, our classical music world will have to change.


Which leads me to a fundamental question. What is classical music, anyway? I’ve been talking here as if it’s old music, but of course there’s also new stuff, written by composers living now. Isn’t that classical music, too? And what about the major institutions—orchestras, opera companies, presenting and producing organizations like Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall—that seem to dominate the field? Do we want to save them, or only the music? As Ben Wolfson asked, in a comment on my last episode, “I'd like to know just what classical music is that's being talked about. Because if it's primarily an institutional or sociological definition, well, I'm not so interested.” Nor I, even if I might be more sympathetic to the large institutions. What I want to save is the music.

But what is that, exactly? I think we’re going to see that the definition of classical music—in essence pretty simple—gets strangely clotted when we look at how classical music is actually defined and understood.

So what is classical music? We could start with the simplest, most obvious answer: Classical music is what we hear at classical music performances. And of course we know what that is. It’s music by the great composers of the past. Or, sometimes, by the not so great composers, but that doesn’t matter, because, no matter how great the composers are (or aren’t), everybody pretty much knows how the music’s going to sound. Amazingly, it’s going to sound like classical music, which sounds like circular, self-referential reasoning, but in fact makes a lot of sense, because everybody knows how classical music sounds. It’s smooth, elegant, surging, romantic, and refined (as compared, let’s say, with angry hiphop, violent heavy metal, insinuating Frank Sinatra numbers, twangy country songs, or raucous jazz).

It uses instruments heard elsewhere mainly for special (and often specially romantic) purposes, like oboes and violins, or else it wows us with the full glamour of a giant symphonic orchestra. It doesn’t, for the most part, use saxophones, synthesizers, or electric guitars; it doesn’t keep a beat with a drumset (and certainly not with a drum machine).

If there are singers, they sing with lots of resonance. They don’t screech (or at least they’re not supposed to); they don’t howl; they don’t scream; they don’t whisper; they don’t croon. They sound, to put it simply, classical; and because of that—because of the care they have to take with that—they sound more alike than pop or jazz or blues or Broadway singers ever do. All of this, everything that I’m describing here, is what we’d think we’d hear if somebody invited us to go to a classical concert hall. It’s what we’d hear if we stumbled on a classical station on the radio. Or if we were clicking our TV remote, and landed on a classical telecast from PBS.

And of course it’s been the picture of classical music that I’ve been using in this book. I didn’t even think this through. But when I wanted to examine the way a classical concert feels, what else could I describe? A performance by a composer who walks with firm and steady steps for 40 minutes, striking alarm bells that he’s suspended from the ceiling? A piece in which a  wire is stretched across a resonant performing space, and then set vibrating electronically, so we can listen while it hums?

Both these pieces really exist, and I’ve loved both of them; the first is Tom Johnson’s Nine Bells, and the second is Alvin Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire. Both, in my experience, are classical music; certainly they’re not anything else, and when, in the ‘80s, I wrote for The Village Voice (at that time the leading weekly paper in New York), I was expected to review them, in my role as a classical music critic. But they don’t fit the common understanding of the term.

And that common understanding can easily be stretched to include the normal ambience of classical music—the formality, restraint, and silence. And, of course, the glamour. So for most of us, these things might as well be part of classical music’s formal definition. Without them, a concert wouldn’t feel very classical. And so here we are with not one definition, but a pile of them, each one apparently implying all the others. Classical music, we can add, is serious; it’s thoughtful; it’s difficult; it’s complex; and it’s art. Now we have a lot of thoughts in play. All of them flow into one another. Why is classical music art? Because it’s serious and complex. How do we know it’s serious? Because it’s performed with such restraint. Why should it be performed that way? Because it’s serious.

Talk about circular logic! But none of this has to be logical. We’re talking about a social construction, a way that some of us approach one part of life. And for those of us who think of classical music in this way, it’s comforting to go to a classical concert. We know what we’re going to get. We can tell ourselves we’re hearing art. Which is flattering, though I wouldn’t say we aren’t hearing art, or that we shouldn’t let ourselves be comforted or reassured. If the experience is good for us, why shouldn’t we have it?

Recent surveys show that the orchestral audience thinks orchestra concerts are inspiring, uplifting, even spiritual. (Even if they don’t know why five horns are playing.) And here are words that don’t come up: provocative, arousing, challenging, adventurous, surprising. On a spectrum of artistic experience that ranges from very calm to totally disturbing, classical music—at least as people currently experience it—falls very much on the calm side. People sometimes even say it’s calm. And that, they say, is why they like it.

But if it’s always calm, how can it be art? It starts to seem like new age music, valued for the peaceful and inspiring emotions it inspires in everyone who likes it. Certainly classical masterworks don’t function as they did when they were new. Beethoven’s music, when he wrote it, often was convulsive; it disturbed and even frightened many people.

All of which is obvious enough. But of course there’s a definition of classical music that strips most of this away. I mentioned Music on a Long Thin Wire. To listen to it properly, I had to accept the long, unchanging hum as music, and then be ready when feedback built up as the wire vibrated, and the hum abruptly changed. To do that, I had to do the same kind of listening I’d do in a classical piece that lasts for 40 minutes; I had to listen patiently, wait and see what happened, discover where the sound was going to take me.

Likewise in Nine Bells. The melodic patterns of the bells were the music in the piece, though Johnson’s steps supplied some rhythm. And Johnson’s walking (planned both for visual and musical effect, since it set up the order in which he rang the bells) was a kind of choreography. The patterns of the bells were tightly structured, so I heard as well as saw unfolding patterns. But again I had to listen while many minutes passed, and the music revealed itself.

These are extreme examples (or at least they might seem so to many people). But I could also talk about music that seems more strictly classical, but still takes flight outside the classical concert hall. For instance, anything the string quartet Ethel might play (and already their name sets them apart from more orthodox quartets, which always call themselves The Something Quartet, where “something” is very often a composer’s name). Ethel plays music by living composers, and at some point at its concerts, one of its musicians might say, “Well, let me introduce the band.” When that happens, they might be playing a classical piece, but their attitude, and the entire atmosphere, is hardly classical. Everyone is dressed informally; the room itself is casual; the performance might be focused, musically, and might be quite intense, but the culture around the music is notably relaxed.

And there are even more strictly classical pieces, written for classical ensembles, even orchestras, and performed in classical concert halls, that aren’t calm or inspirational; they might be jagged, dissonant, and restless. These come, most often, from the 20th century, a bygone age with which classical music hasn’t yet caught up, probably because the sonic echo of its disturbances (cultural, political; wars, massacres, displacements) is too disturbing in the hushed and reverent classical ambience we’re used to. So it should be obvious that classical music doesn’t have to be the way that I’ve described it. It can be ugly; challenging; provocative; and quite surprising; it can also informal, casual, relaxed, and even homemade. (Tom Johnson bought his bells at an electrical store; Alvin Lucier rigged up his wire by himself.)

Which should then suggest that older classical music doesn’t have to be as smooth as it’s become, that it, too, could be performed informally, or with attitude, or disturbingly, or adventurously, if we could only figure out how. But if that’s true, what does classical music become? It doesn’t even have to use the normal classical instruments. If you can write it for nine burglar alarm bells, you could write it for a rock band. Or for harmonica. Or—as the sometimes shocking composer David Del Tredici did a few years ago (provoking gasps from one classical critic)—you could write a piece in which a classical pianist accompanies a flagrantly non-classical vocalist, thus mixing worlds in a way that wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows pop or world music (Arab songs with western dance beats, anyone? that happened in Algeria), but still can cause amazement, inside the protected borders of the classical world.

But then what makes all this music classical? And here we come to my own definition of what classical music, at its core, is all about. First, it’s the musical tradition of developed western culture. This is especially important for the older stuff, Beethoven and Brahms, because when that was written, there wasn’t any other kind of musical art, as there is today (which gives current classical music a somewhat tenuous relationship both to the tradition it comes out of, and to the present world, yet another discouraging problem, which I’ll examine in part two).

So if I wanted to defend Beethoven and Brahms, if I want to give reasons why their music should still be played—and, even more important, why it should still be funded—I’d say that it’s an important part of our history, which ought to be preserved, and which offers things that still can be compelling. Leave aside, for the moment, everything that I said earlier about the cultural cues in older music, how we don’t hear them, and how therefore the music isn’t as expressive as it ought to be. That’s also true of literature, but we still can read Jane Austen, Dickens, Flaubert, Dante, Shakespeare, Proust.

And if we can read these writers, we can also listen to…well, a musical equivalent of Jane Austen doesn’t quite come to mind, and nobody in 19th century music has the scope of Dickens, with his verve, his surging humor, and, not least, his emphasis on ordinary people and their often crushing difficulties. But if we can read Flaubert, surely we can hear Lucie de Lammermoor, the opera that his Emma Bovary swooned to. (It’s clear from the novel that she’s hearing the French version of Donizetti’s opera, not the original Italian version that we know as Lucia di Lammermoor.) If we can read Shakespeare, we can listen to his contemporary Monteverdi. Proust connects to Wagner and to Debussy. And surely we can listen to Beethoven, who from this point of view can be fascinating precisely because he has no literary counterpart.

There might be difficulties; music, perhaps because it’s expensive to perform, has always been conservative. Eighteenth century composers wrote masses for the Catholic church; you just don’t find them writing choral pieces with ideas from the Enlightenment, questioning the existence of the Christian God. Even Beethoven, in every other way untamed, and whose religion seems to have been freely mixed from Christian, Eastern, and impulsive Deist elements, made his most powerful religious work a Catholic mass. Opera in the 19th century told stories of aristocrats, never of the ordinary people, bourgeois or working class, whose stories started to show up in novels.

For all these reasons, older classical music might sometimes be a little hard for modern minds to take; it doesn’t always have the edge we take for granted in the other arts. But it’s still our history, and overt themes aside, there’s something powerful at work in it; it supplies a wordless counterpart to what the other arts can tell us.

And then there’s the second part of my definition, which gives a second reason to value classical music. Here I find myself agreeing with Julian Johnson, desolate as he may be otherwise. One thing unique in classical music, he suggests, is its

discursive aspect. The claim of classical music is that, in order to make musical sense, it requires concentrated attention from start to finish. In some ways it is comparable to a rather involved novel or film; if you skip a few chapters or leave the room for a while, you may well lose the plot or narrative thread.

I do think that’s a little negative, a little punishing; Johnson sounds as if he’s looking for things to disapprove of. Don’t skip those chapters! Less cheerlessly, he makes his point another way:

Classical music aspires to the condition of thought because it embodies the basic categories of thought: the differentiation of its materials and their discursive development within a logical sequence. It does this not in imitation of language…but rather as an independent and highly sophisticated medium of thought and feeling in its own right. It presents specifically musical ideas through specifically musical forms, elaborated in a way that engages us intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. [61]

I could shake my head at some of this. Johnson works hard, in his book, to remove classical music from everyday experience, and I find an echo of that in the passage I’ve just quoted, in the way Johnson talks about “specifically” musical ideas and form, as if a musical idea could be “specifically” musical and nothing else, as if every musical idea didn’t take some form that expressed something in our culture.

But still he’s onto something. Classical music really is discursive. A classical piece can start in one place, and end in another. It evolves over spans of time, like a novel or a film. It can play with its material, contrasting and developing various ideas, the way a novel or a film can juggle many characters, many settings, many ideas, and many plot developments. Or a classical piece could veer wildly from one thing to another, but the point would be the same; it’s doing something during a span of time, maybe a long one, and I don’t know any other music that works in quite this way. It gives classical music a special richness, not a greater richness than any other kind of music, but a richness unique to itself. If this disappeared from our culture, I’d be desolate myself.

(References, which I should have had in the last episode: Christopher Small, Musicking, Hanover, N.H.: The University Press of New England (Wesleyan University Press), 1998, p. 155. Robert Walser, Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music; Hanover, N.H.: The University Press of New England (Wesleyan University Press), 1993, p. 63. Julian Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value; Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 69, 37, 61)

(Coming next, on December 12: Examples of how classical music works. A defense of pop. And, finally, why classical music serves as a refuge from the present day.)

(Music that got me through this episode: Beethoven, Pastoral Symphony, Bruno Walter conducting the New York Philharmonic; Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings (only two CDs); Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run, 30th Anniversary Edition, with the quite wonderfully remastered album, a tremendous live concert on a DVD, and a second, quite compelling DVD about the making of the album. If Springsteen isn't art, I'll eat the DVDs.)

If you’d like to write a comment -- and I'd love you to -- may I ask you to put it at the end of the current episode, instead of here? More people will see it that way. And it will contribute to the always lively new discussion that emerges whenever I post a new episode. If you put your comment here, it will appear only at the end of this episode, the one you’ve just been reading. And that will isolate it from the current conversation. Thanks!

Posted by gsandow on November 28, 2005 2:20 AM


"...nobody in 19th century music has the scope of Dickens, with his verve,
his surging humor, and, not least, his emphasis on ordinary people and their
often crushing difficulties."

If anyone was ever a musical Dickens, it would have to be Mussorgsky. Noone else has had that particular deep humanistic wit. (Shostakovich's wit seems more political, more rhetorical--not to take anything away from it.)

Much of this wit is most apparent in Mussorgsky's songs. I'd think that songs in general would be well suited to forming a more active connection with the audience: they're (potentially) intimate in scale, and they have concrete subject matter. But most song recitals treat the songs as the vehicle for the singer, who is the object on display.

Please keep up the good work!

Posted by: Marlon at November 28, 2005 10:35 AM

"Certainly nobody had to be educated to like classical music in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it flourished, and when in fact it was the only musical game in town;"
What town are you talking about? My peasant immigrant forebears didn't know any classical music. What they knew was folk music, that was handed down aurally. Of course, this Type of music is dead in the West, and quickly dying out in the rest of the world. It has been replaced by composed pop musio.

(Arab songs with western dance beats, anyone? that happened in Algeria)
Personally, I'd rather listen to western songs with Arabic (asymetrical "Aksak" i.e. 3+3+2)beats. But given that westerners are rythmically challenged, and couldn't dance to it, it would never sell.
Good luck on this project!

Posted by: Richard at November 28, 2005 12:15 PM

Ethnomusicologist Philip Yamposlky wrote a wonderful article called "Can the Traditional Arts Survive, and Should They?" I think his reasons for preservation apply to music of all kinds.
". . . when we do hear this music we come face to face with a different way to organize sound from what we're used to, and that symbolizes a different way to organize experience, a different way to live." "That's what traditional music can do for us: suggest the possibility that life can be lived differently. Traditional music is inherently counterhegemonic for anyone outside the tradition: it shows that the order we take for granted is not the only one there is. I believe this is crucially important information for people everywhere today. Increasingly we all have the same experiences, hear the same messages from the same media, buy the same products, are governed by the same laws, depend upon the same technology. We need to be reminded constantly of the grand history of human difference, of the diverse structures of existence. Appreciating the arts of another society does not require us to abandon our own principles, does not require us to share the religious beliefs or cultural practices of the society that produced the art. We can appreciate the work of the human imagination, the great work of design and structure, without being implicated in the specific content and context. Structuring the world, interpreting it, is a necessary human activitiy, and we all can learn from what the rest of us have done." [Indonesia 71, April 2001]

Posted by: John Steinmetz at November 28, 2005 12:23 PM

Kyle Gann's illustration of what Julian Johnson calls the discursive aspect of classical music:

"Most pop songs retain pretty much the same sonic identity from beginning to end. The profile of a pop song is crucial to its instant recognition. You can't have a pop song that starts out 'We... will... we... will... ROCK YOU!' and ends up 'God only knows what I'd do without you' - though in a sense, most classical music does something like that all the time."

Tom, thanks for this. Kyle's view is good to have, and, as usual with him, it's nicely stated.

But I can't say I agree. I'm going to address things like this in my next episode. For one thing, it's easy to cite pop songs in which new things happen. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, "The Love I Lost" -- after three minutes or so of standard pop-song stuff, the music falls into repetition of one riff, with fabulous call and response things by the lead and backup singers over that riff. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love": sax solo that's as much jazz as rock & roll, with a sudden breakout from the bass player into a jazz walking bass. Bruce Springsteen, ""Incident on 57th Street": Surprises at every turn, as the song appears to be setting up a standard verse/chorus form (though with complications: two choruses), and then departs from that.

It's true, of course, that we don't find too many pop songs that go from one thing to something completely different. Though how common is that in classical music? Do any Mozart symphony movements (just for instance) do that? But there's a larger question here, of representation. Classical music typically shapes itself to fit the emotions or other situations it's trying to represent (very obvious when there's a text, but the same kinds of music show up when tthere sin't one). Non-western music is very unlikely to do that, as Christopher Small points out. And pop, since the rock era, has had a strong (if not obvious, because we take many traits of the music for granted) non-western component, coming more or less directly from Africa. Thus we get songs whose music doesn't represent the emotions of the words. So the words can easily take the song to a new place. (See for instance "Reno," from this year's Springsteen album "Devils & Dust.") The music won't go to the new place, but that's normal. It functions in a different way, and shouldn't be measured by classical music standards.

Posted by: Tom Hartley at November 28, 2005 11:33 PM

just a tiny comment on what the orchestra wears (black or white tie) - Years ago, in Denver, the DSO (before it was the CSO) members wore their own choice of clothing for one of the week's concerts. It was a total distraction from the music; one's attention was drawn to what the principal cellist was wearing, that tie doesn't go with that shirt, what is that plaid anyway, her dress is too whatever, and the like. Some whispering accompanied all this. I've always assumed the orchestra wears non-committal black tie and long gown because then the appearance of players is not the focus of attention, but rather their playing itself and the Music they are creating.

On the other hand, in the big Pop shows, the Star is the show along with the music, hence the casual/bizarre/well-worn costume!

Thanks, Jeanne. Very interesting, and not unexpected. I was once involved in a Grammy awards show where there was a full classical orchestra, and special clothes were designed. The musicians complained that the clothes were hard to play in. And maybe they were!

Change can be tricky. At first, everything looks odd, and draws attention to itself. After a while, the new things seem normal. And when we think about how orchestras dress, we should think of the effect the standard dress has on that new audience we're all talking about. I think it's largely a turnoff.

There's also a question of who's going to decide what the new dress should be, and that could lead to some uncomfortable stress between orchestra musicians and orchestra management. This is yet another reason why it's easier not to change.

Posted by: Jeanne Fuchs at November 29, 2005 9:42 AM

Great discussion!
After attending a New York Philharmonic concert this past Saturday evening (with many of these ideas rolling around in my head) I realized something about my own listening awareness. As a performer of classical music perhaps my realizations are atypical of any demographic we're trying to understand. Nevertheless, my enjoyment of that particular concert had a lot to do with my mind putting my body on the stage. I was looking at the conductor when I knew important cues were coming. I was looking at the section when I knew there was a particularly interesting passage about to occur.
Conversely, when I am a performer, I always enjoy the performance so much more when my mind puts my body in the audience, when I listen and appreciate the other performers.
I don't know how germaine any of this is; it's just an observation from my experience the other night.
Thanks again for the great reading and thought-provoking content.

Posted by: Bruce Jackson at November 29, 2005 1:11 PM

First time reader: First comment:
You speak of "Pop Tunes:. Lymon, et all.
Will you consider Jazz in future chapters?
This may disturb some but I'm not quite sure of the greater genius: Bach or Charlie (Bird) Parker? Stravinsky or Stan Kenton? Ives or Bud Powell?
While "Pop" music is an imporant part of American culture, Jazz is America's original offering to all.

Posted by: Hy Dales at November 29, 2005 8:27 PM

A further response to Gann's point: he talks in the linked post of pieces with lengths on the order of an hour. I can think of a fair number of pop songs of similar length, but absolutely scads of albums whose profiles change drastically over that time—thematically unified albums, too, not just thrown-together compilations.

Though the better answer is surely that even at the level of individual songs, it's not true (and it underestimates non-classical music to assume that "instant recognizability" is always a concern for it). (Examples (I can't resist): 1, 2, 3, 4.)

(I think Gann's next post is also of interest.)

Posted by: ben wolfson at November 30, 2005 1:27 AM

I don't think that program notes, playing the music in a more exciting manner, or much of what you've talked about is going to put butts in the seats. The orchestra is in it's end game, I believe. Perhaps these are all issues which led to it's (possible) demise but just turning them around isn't going to solve it.

Look at it this way: you produce a sitcom, you have a number of viewers at first but it tapers off, and soon you're at the bottom of the ratings. You're in danger of being cancelled. The problem, according to your studies, is the writing, and a less-than-appelaing main character. So you decide to shift the focus to a different character, one who test audiences responded to better, and you hire a couple of new writers with a solid track record from other shows. Your new shows are great - you show them to people at the network, and everyone agrees the new season is spectacular, and how can people not see this and love it? How can it not work it's way back up to the top ten?

There's a problem in that equation: Nobody's watching it to even know you changed anything. The audience, they made their decision already.

That's where we're at. The solutions offered are not solutions per se: they're preventative medicine that should have been done for years. Classical music is like an old person on life support who's stopped exercising regularly and doesn't have a pet: these are things that might extend life - if they weren't on death's door already. No sense buying a cat now.

I don't so much think "classical music" is dying out as, more specifically, "orchestral classical music" - though it may take down the rest of the genre with it. Not sure what will happen to the orchestra over the next ten, twenty years. I think a new business model will have to emerge centered around chamber groups and soloists, while orchestras go the way of the choir - very few professional ones, most of them community and/or church groups, made up of whoever's handy and willing to give it a go. I blogged on my own opinions about where the orchestra needs to go recently, though there is no "quick fix" - this is a multi-year (multi-decade?) rehabilitation project.

If we don't? I can see the obituary now: "Classical Music found dead in Upper West Side apartment; Flesh partially consumed by starving cat"

Posted by: Seth Gordon at November 30, 2005 12:35 PM

I don't think that program notes, playing the music in a more exciting manner, or much of what you've talked about is going to put butts in the seats. The orchestra is in it's end game, I believe. Perhaps these are all issues which led to it's (possible) demise but just turning them around isn't going to solve it.

Look at it this way: you produce a sitcom, you have a number of viewers at first but it tapers off, and soon you're at the bottom of the ratings. You're in danger of being cancelled. The problem, according to your studies, is the writing, and a less-than-appelaing main character. So you decide to shift the focus to a different character, one who test audiences responded to better, and you hire a couple of new writers with a solid track record from other shows. Your new shows are great - you show them to people at the network, and everyone agrees the new season is spectacular, and how can people not see this and love it? How can it not work it's way back up to the top ten?

There's a problem in that equation: Nobody's watching it to even know you changed anything. The audience, they made their decision already.

That's where we're at. The solutions offered are not solutions per se: they're preventative medicine that should have been done for years. Classical music is like an old person on life support who's stopped exercising regularly and doesn't have a pet: these are things that might extend life - if they weren't on death's door already. No sense buying a cat now.

I don't so much think "classical music" is dying out as, more specifically, "orchestral classical music" - though it may take down the rest of the genre with it. Not sure what will happen to the orchestra over the next ten, twenty years. I think a new business model will have to emerge centered around chamber groups and soloists, while orchestras go the way of the choir - very few professional ones, most of them community and/or church groups, made up of whoever's handy and willing to give it a go. I blogged on my own opinions about where the orchestra needs to go recently, though there is no "quick fix" - this is a multi-year (multi-decade?) rehabilitation project.

If we don't? I can see the obituary now: "Classical Music found dead in Upper West Side apartment; Flesh partially consumed by starving cat"

Posted by: Seth Gordon at November 30, 2005 12:36 PM

Some of what has been said here makes some sense. It has made me more aware of what I have been doing on stage night after night with my orchestra. However, I think it is time that what is being implied in this blog is stated clearly. "Classical musicians should be amateurs." Like it or not the music we play is scholarly and technical. We are not not the same as indie rock bands. We learn a trade and we work for a living. In the grand scheme of things very few people care about orchestral classical music. Even fewer care about the chamber varieties. If you think that music played at the level that it is today can exsist with a garage band mentality that is great. Just admit that the loss of full time orchestras will be a loss of some kind. The loss of professionalism in the arts is a serious thing to consider.

Well, this is an amazing comment. I'm grateful for it.

Look what it says. Classical music is, by its very nature, I guess, technical and scholarly. That would have shocked and dismayed all the great comopsers, and least before the late 19th century, and maybe the 20th. And look, too, at the assumption that there are only two possibilities in performance -- either you're a professional, in which case you're technical and scholarly and no large number of people will ever like you, or else you're a garage band! No middle ground there, or, more to the point, no other possibilities. How about being the Duike Ellington band? How about being U2?(That is, a highly professional rock band.) How about being Artur Rubinstein, a classical pianist, absolutely at the top of the field, during his time, who had an electric connection with his audiences? (I saw him. The warmth and excitement were unforgettable.)

How about being like Italiian opera in past generations? How about being La Scala, in the age when Visconti was directing productions and Callas was starring in them? The other singers weren't exactly forgettable, either. How about being like Carlo Bergonzi, the heartwarming tenor of the '60s and '70s, whom I heard just last night in a recording of part of a live Trovatore performance? The audience burst into cheers in the middle of his aria.

I'd think that the attitude expressed in this comment -- with all respect to the person who made it, who's clearly a serious professional -- all but guarantees performances no large number of people will ever want to listen to, including educated artists and professionals, intellectuals, and scholars. What, exactly, would be the attraction in hearing this person play? That they take a serious, techinical, scholarly approach to the music? Well, that fist sounds like a lecture, not an artistic performance, and secondly, plenty of other people do that. I'd love to have this person in my Juilliard class, and ask them to present reasons for going to hear them, pitched at people who don't usually go to classical music. Except in this case, to make sure we understand we're not talking about either garage bands (God help me), or any kind of middlebrow or mass audience, i'd say: Talk to me as if you were talking to people who like the most arcane art films. Talk, in other words, to people with a highly developed artistic sensibility, and who are passionately NOT interested in popular art. Talk to Jim Jarmusch. (Whose films aren't even all that arcane.) Why should he go to hear what you do?

Garage bands! What does this person think the world outside classical music is really like?

Posted by: Anonymous at December 1, 2005 2:51 AM

You took a good stab at answering my personal leading question: why do we need classical music? But your answer suggests that perhaps we don't need it anymore in the form it usually takes. Ethel didn't need Carnegie Hall. Still to come, I hope, is your stab at why we still need the New York Philharmonic. That this music is our history is of course true, but most of our history is to be found in libraries and museums, not reenacted live for a paying audience on a weekly basis. The whole standard classical canon, more or less, is available for library archival. It can survive there indefinitely. As a youth, I first came to know the Mahler symphonies and the Ring by way of the public library, not local performances. In fact, most of the music I know I've never heard live.

Classical music is still being written so it still needs performers. Do those need to include 60-seat string sections and 9 different varieties of woodwind? Could Dr. Atomic or Dead Man Walking have been written for saxes, guitars, and synthesizer instead? Would they get wider audiences that way?

I'm playing devil's advocate here, I hope you realize. Severance Hall is my heaven on earth, but even heaven has to fight for survival.

Tom, thanks for highlighting this question. It's important.

I could give an elliptical answer. I think orchestras will need to prove their need to survive, by finding ways to get people excited about what they do. Or, better, by finding things to do that will get people excited. Very possibly their days, in their present form, are numbered. They might think of reconfiguring themselves as a group of musicians, ready to do music of all kinds in their communities. That would probably include fewer orchestral performances than it does now.

You're quite right that new music doesn't have to require orchestral forces. Steve Reich is one composer who's said that very forcefully. Likewise Louis Andriessen, whose idea of an orchestra wouldn't necessarily include a full complement of traditional orchestral instruments.

History, also, plays a curious role here. How do we keep our history alive in live performances? Inevitably, they're not historical. They're taking place now, and inevitably, again, embody a contemporary view of the music being played. That's more true, I think, than the same thing would be of a museum show of art from previous centuries. Obviously the curator has a point of view, but still you can stand there and look at the art in its original form, and come to your own view of it. The music only exists in performance, so any view we form at a concert is filtered through what the musicians are giving us.

Thanks again for raising these points. Very interesting, and helpful.

Posted by: Tom Chambers at December 1, 2005 1:32 PM

I wrote the comment about professionalism after getting home from a grinding day of concerts for kids, practicing Mahler all afternoon and a Pops rehearsal at night. This is not a complaint it is my job and by and large I love it. I was simply distressed to read in another comment that I should consider working in a music store to promote the symphony.
I know that it may not have come across (I am not a professional writer) but I would put up my knowledge of pop music with anyone in classical music. I know that U2(whose music I don’t care for) does not function like a garage band. I used the garage band reference to make the point that maybe there is more to the people in a symphony orchestra than an unabashed and naive love of music. Orchestras and their musicians are different from new music groups or chamber groups which may have more in common with rock bands. It is not better or worse, just different.
My saying that classical music is scholarly and technical is simply a statement. That is not to say that program notes need to read like a graduate textbook. However, when talking about Brahms for instance it is hard to not get caught up in the technical marvel of his composition. For many people that is what makes him and the other major composers important and possibly relevant. You comment about how these guys would be surprised to hear that. But I seem to remember being in college and hearing about these guys writing hours of counterpoint exercises daily, constantly revising their works and in other words, a lot of school.
As far as why anyone should come and hear me or any of my colleagues around the country. I would agree that it is hard to make an event out of a group that plays 1-3 programs a week. But how is it different from a baseball regular season? I believe that most performers live in the middle ground that you say I don’t acknowledge. We can’t all be Derek Jeter and be superstars. Hopefully what you can count on are solid to great performances of great music night after night. That may not be enough for you but I believe that is a separate issue. Who cannot relate to a good team chasing the same goal. Isn’t that all the corporate speakers talk about? This is not to say that everyone is giving their all night after night. But I do think it is a mistake to equate giving your all with highly emotive performances. I feel like my first obligation (as a section player) is to the people who are on stage with me and to give them my best. Our best is great or even an average night is still pretty good . I know it is not glamorous but professionalism in any industry can tend to be a little dry. Some are much better than others but American orchestras are pretty damn good at what they do. I don’t think it would hurt to push that fact as an attraction. We all know pro ball players are more skilled than college players. Some argue that the spirit of the NCAA game is an attraction and that the pros are too polished and don’t care. But at least we recognize the difference.
As far as reaching people who hate pop music I am not sure where to begin. Why would anyone dismiss all pop music for one. I would also expect more of highly educated people than simply wanting to hear the warhorses. Those are the people I would hope would go hear the untested pieces. That brings me to a point about orchestras and new music. Specializing in Beethoven and such sets the bar pretty high. I have devoted a great deal of my time to new music on my own. One of the best weeks I ever had was spent driving Milton Babbitt around and getting to ask him questions and haering his wity and scholarly answers. However, it is pretty disconcerting to be sitting on stage in tails playing music by major living composers, who are sometimes in the audience, knowing that your core patrons who love the symphony also hate what you are playing.
I would also like to say that I have and will again play serious music in bars and other non traditional places. It is a great experience and lot of fun and I can only afford to do it only because of my day job at the orchestra. It is easier to connect with people on an individual basis. As an orchestra member I am not an individual. However, after playing a chamber concert of Bach, Glass, and Bartok in a bar some in the audience said to me that it was as good as concerts they heard in great halls by great quartets. It is very flattering, but not true. These concerts are misleading if that is how people leave when they hear them. These types of concerts can be invigorating for the local audiences and musicians but they cannot replace the real thing. We should expect the best all the time. That includes playing in the best space possible with people who know their jobs. I know my job and I know I that I am not a chamber musician or a marketing expert.

Thanks so much for this long and passionate clarification, which was more peaceable than my somewhat intemperate comment. Thanks for that, and I wish I'd expressed myself the way you do.

I don't have time at just this moment for much clarification of my own, since I'm about to head out to Carnegie Hall to hear some of that classical music we keep talking about. (Orchestra of St. Luke's.) But I do think that pop musicians work as hard as classical musicians do on the technical side of their craft. It happens that some of the classical techniques, like counterpoint, can be codified and studied, something not completely true of (let's say) the detailed handling of reverb and delay in pop production (which plays a big part in pop composition). But I don't think we should confuse counterpoint with art. The tools of the trade aren't the trade itself, and when composers talk about their work, at least before modern times, they talked about the expression or the narrative in the piece, and less about the technical details. Christopher Small observes that Mozart and Beethoven never mention sonata form in their letters, or other surviving accounts of what they said and thought. Of course, they used sonata form all the time, but it wasn't as remarkable to them, evidently, as it is to us. It was just how one wrote music, and obviously one would handle it in an individual way. But the technical details weren't, apparently, worth much remark.

Posted by: Anonymous at December 1, 2005 4:54 PM

I don't think baseball is a particularly good comparison. There is no competition between orchestras, there's no World Series or Super Bowl. There's no braggin' rights if you take home the Grammy. Fans of James Levine do not boo the NY Phil. One does not root for an orchestra, or make a personal emotional investment in them. You don't sit on the edge of your seat wondering if they're going to pull off a big play or screw up with an error. There is no offense or defense. What you have is a group of people working towards a common goal. An orchestra is more akin to a construction crew than a sports team. Sports are not art. Oh, say, MJ may be "art" when he sails through the air, but it's not, you know, Art.

Anyway, I do understand his/her point, or at least why Anonymous feels that way, but I think it also shows a disconnect. I seems the people buying the tickets - and paying his/her salary - disagree. He/She even appears a bit dismissive of them: if someone tells you in a bar that the performance was as good as any they'd heard in a concert hall by the Walgenfragenhoigenfloigen Quartet, you know what? It was! The purpose of music is not to play it well in a room with good acoustics. The purpose of music is to move souls. If you lose sight of that, you shouldn't be playing music.

"Good" is a matter of personal taste. To the Unnamed Orchestral Musician, it wasn't up to snuff. That's fine. You don't like it, don't go see music in that setting. Some may prefer it that way, though. I have a feeling that most people under thirty - under forty maybe - would. If I run a store, you better believe that what my customers think is thousand times more important than what any employee does.

It seems that Anonymous ranks technique equally with (if not not higher than) expression. That's fine, and in an orchestra, obviously, you don't want people jumping up and playing solos out of the blue. If twelve violins are supposed to be playing in unison, they can't all be putting their own individual spin on the passage.

Which is why, to me, it takes a far superior player to pull off chamber music. In an orchestra, one can hide in the middle of the section. In a small combo, every individual stands out - strengths, weaknesses. A truly expressive player can really make something work, take a piece to a higher level. If one is just being "professional" - eh. Snore. It's the equivalent of a lackluster guitar solo by someone who knows a lot of fancy scales and how to play them fast, but nothing of how to build drama.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying professionalism is bad or anything. Far from it. it's fine as long as it's in service to something greater. But for me, if I had to choose, I'd take expressiveness over technique any day of the week and twice on Sunday. But I prefer NCAA to pro hoops, too. It's just taste.

I would recommend the anonymous poster try to take him/herself out of the "musician's mindset" - it may be hard for you not to get caught up in the technical marvel of Brahms, but for someone who knows nothing about the guts of music it would be very easy not to. Hell, I do know about music and I don't get caught up in the techincal marvels. If I like a piece, I get caught up in the musical marvel of it. I may explore it further, get to see those technical marvels that make it work the way it does later. Or maybe not - my computer is a technical marvel, I'm sure, but I have no interest in taking it apart. Just using it to compose, talk about music with people I don't know, and download... uh, stuff. I don't need to know how a chip is constructed.

So, who's the better singer, Bryn Terfel or Al Green?

Posted by: Seth (again) at December 1, 2005 9:28 PM

Like it or not the music we play is scholarly and technical. We are not not the same as indie rock bands.

What makes you think amateurs can't hack technical music, or be engaged as scholars?

Posted by: ben wolfson at December 1, 2005 10:37 PM

I am afraid that you and I have too deep a difference in perspective to have much more of a debate. I think that you have a profound misunderstanding of what it means and takes to be an orchestra player. I find it a little odd that you would use the words “far superior” in reference to chamber musicians when you go out of your way not to judge anyone else. I have no doubt you believe what you say, but I also suspect that there is a little baiting going on as there is in the “you should not be playing music” comment. I don’t believe that you think orchestras and their employees should be out of work but I do think that the only people that sometimes have it in for musicians more than orchestra managements are the critics.
I think that a lot of what you say has a great deal of merit. I feel strongly that things have to change in this business. It sounds like some of the work you have done is doing just that.You and I disagree on some things but I suspect not for what we think those reasons are. That is mostly my fault in not being able to articulate it but I think you harbor a prejudice towards orchestra musicians and this way of musical life. Believe me you are not the only one. It is a mentality that I encountered all through school. I believed until the end of grad school that all the guys who played downtown were hacks until I got to sub regularly in a top ten orchestra and realized they could eat me for breakfast. I realized then that conservatory teachers were not so much full of shit as simply ignorant. I know now that orchestra musicians are the way they are for a lot of reasons. The bad things are generally misunderstood and the good things are overlooked.
I know why you think this way but all the reasons you presume make chamber musicians better would not help them at an audition. We have a different criteria but those rigid things we demonstrate at auditions are what makes a good orchestra. If you think that technical proficiency is divorced from expression we may be further off than I thought. The day that what the Cleveland or Philly Orchestras etc. do is not good enough to justify a living let me off the ride. That kind of music making is what we in this part of the industry aspire to and if the rules changed somewhere I want out.
I could touch upon every other thing you wrote but it would be a little redundant.
I look forward to reading the rest of your book draft. Good luck.

Thanks so much, again, for all of this, and most especially for how generous you are to me, especially in your final lines.

I do think there's one misunderstanding, which I'm sure I helped create, but not being clear enough .(This is yet another case in which these comments are enormously helpful to me.) I've worked extensively with orchestras and orchestra musicians, especially with the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra, but with a number of other major groups as well. I've served as a consultant and carried out some special projects. I've had very cordial relationships with musicians in a number of major orchestras, and I think (or at least I flatter myself) that I understand the orchestra world pretty well. I'd encourage you to go to my main blog, to read about the discussion I initiated at a orchestral gathering, in collaboration with the executive director of one of the Group One orchestras (to use the ASOL's classification). You might disagree with everything I said (and that this executive director said, not to mention the musicians in the conversation). But at least i hope you'll see that I'm working in this world, and that I'm not at all alone in saying what I say.

Good luck to you, too, in all your music-making. I wish you only the best. And thanks again for all your thoughtful and heartfelt comments.

Posted by: Anonymous at December 2, 2005 2:31 AM

The back-and-forth between you and the orchestra musician who calls him/herself "Anonymous" reminded me of a comment by Professor Willie Ruff at Yale, who (according to my memory) said that "the biggest problem in an orchestra is that everything that happens has to get filtered through the brains of 99 people." I used Ruff’s comment to posit that there is an artistic threshold of (primarily rhythmic) expression that is intrinsic to large orchestras (i.e., not referring to the artistic limitations produced by bad morale, lack of effort or desire, overburdened schedules, etc., which are all external factors), and that this threshold is necessarily lower than what it is for small ensembles, such as a string quartet. In contrast, the organ, in its most orchestral incarnations, provides the highest possible artistic threshold because everything that happens passes through the brain and nervous system of only one individual. Of course, I have witnessed moments in orchestral playing which transcended this threshold, or in other words, pushed it up the scale to a level at which I hadn’t realized it could be set. The challenge, then, is for orchestras to push themselves to set the bar higher than what they think is possible, and work to get as close to this ideal as they can. Congratulations on your heroic efforts to broadcast the message that the artistic status quo of our time is often unacceptable.

Posted by: Daniel Sullivan at December 3, 2005 1:04 PM

You’ve written in a comment above that you think pop and classical musicians work equally hard at their technique. Enormous work and enormous thought obviously go into the creation of pop music, sometimes very famously (for instance James Brown). So let me be very clear upfront—I don’t think the work that, say, a soloist puts into a concerto before performing it is any more strenuous than the best of rock groups puts into their new album (assuming that, in each case, every detail is agonized over, as it ought to be).

That said, there’s an obvious glaring difference between pop and classical musicians—which is that classical musicians’ work begins when they’re children. They’re handed (or choose to begin) instruments that, if they’re going to be played well, are basically torture devices, requiring endless finesse, endless attention to details that most audience members will never notice are right (though they’ll probably notice if they’re wrong), endless diligence. I hope I won’t earn your scorn by pointing out that this doesn’t go for even really great pop musicians (okay, Hendrix—but the division is still pretty clear-cut and undeniable).

What leads kids and teenagers to devote themselves to this very difficult work? Obviously it usually begins with the desire to please parents or teachers, but at the point where the going gets rough it’s a passionate belief in the music they’re learning to play. It’s a belief that the music will teach them about themselves, nurture them, provoke them, stay inside them—that it will have infinite onion peels to go on discovering throughout their lives. That it’s something a whole lot more than “cultural history” (an insulting term that turns all music into a politically correct academic game). That among other things, it’s that bad word, “complex”—emotionally and intellectually.

I notice that when the subject is video games, you write disapprovingly that we classical squares have to learn to appreciate the complexity of the form; but when it’s classical music (a dumb term, but fine, let’s go on using it), that we have to let the audience we’re trying to bring in know that there’s nothing daunting or complex about what we do.

Believe what you like, though I don’t know if it’s disingenuity or naïveté that makes you say that in its time classical music (blanket term) was as readily accessible as pop music is today. Late Beethoven quartets? “The Rite of Spring”? What about those Bach cantatas that recently spurred you to write a post imagining the befuddled reaction of a contemporary parishioner?

I love pop music, but elitist that I am I’ve never taken as much from “Sticky Fingers” or “Kid A” or “White Light/White Heat” or “Astral Weeks” or “Live at the Apollo” as I have from the “Jupiter” symphony or the Brahms clarinet sonatas or the Ravel quartet or the Bartok piano concertos, etc. etc. They’ve never been the balm for loneliness or the beautiful enigma to try to decode or the key to unalloyed joy that those pieces have been. Call me crazy. (Yes, I chose obvious canonical examples to represent each side).

Classical music is not going to be saved because we start dressing down or playing video games. If it regains a wider popularity it will be through the work of individuals—composers, critics, performers—who treat it, publicly, like it’s a matter of life and death.

A final word. A lot of things get discussed on your blog; one that tends to go overlooked is the music itself. I can’t think of anything more depressing or more emblematic of an uninspiring approach to reeling in those listeners who aren’t coming to the concerts, then a blog not about classical music itself but about how lots of people aren’t listening to it and that’s because we’re too durn formal. (I think you get closer to the truth of why so much classical performance is uninspiring in your latest post, about the Haydn symphony). If any music blog plays a role in bringing in new audiences, perhaps it will be Alex Ross’s or Kyle Gann’s, but it won’t be this one. Honestly, you seem to have a lot of “you know, I don’t really even LIKE classical music that much” moments—moments in which you talk about how no piece of music is as much a part of you as certain movies or novels, or how, come to think of it, classical music doesn’t play much of a role in your day-to-day thoughts. Fine, but why then take on the role of the average guy who’s going to bring classical music to other average guys? It reminds me of the “USA Today”-trained editors who are brought into newspapers to boost sagging circulation numbers, but who just happen to not actually care about journalism.

I feel lucky to receive such a thoughtful and thoroughgoing criticism. I do think the writer may be surprised by my next installment, and I might want to respond at greater length later on. But he should know that I take seriously everything he says.

Posted by: Anonymous at December 3, 2005 5:11 PM

Hi Greg,

I think your recapitulations of past chapters get better and better, and this time it’s the best. Now I really see the narrative of the book unfolding. I did have one thought: should the opening discussion of Moire be up against your later comments about "the music itself"? Or is there a good reason for keeping them separate? And if they were together, would they be paired at the beginning or the end? I can see the temptation in beginning with one’s own musical background; but beginning in the middle of things, with an anecdote of a person we can all relate to, might be more compelling. I didn't have a clear opinion one way or another.

Thank you for a discussion of music in the schools that does not hew to the tired cliches that do more harm than good. Thanks especially for the mention of Robert Johnson, who I went and downloaded, only to find musically incomprehensible! A great example for how most people feel about what I'm doing, I'm sure.

I'm actually bullish about the future of primary and secondary level music education. I think it has passed through the same type of nadir that Greek and Latin passed through in the 70s and will steadily make the same sort of comeback. At that time, on the heels of the 60s you invoked, it was taken for granted that dead languages were on their way out as a subject, to be replaced by more 'practical' and 'contemporary' fields like Home Ec and psychology. However, as a larger population of students cluster at the top end of the achievement ladder, demand for classes that go above and beyond the core curriculum, to give students a "leg up", has put Greek and Latin in vogue, and last I read, there were not nearly enough Latin teachers to fill burgeoning demand.

I take up your space with this because I see music on a parallel track. The stratification of educational achievement is a disturbing matter, but it has left an increasing pool of people pushing at the ceiling, finding what the schools won’t give them through extra-curriculars. Music classes and lessons in high-achieving suburbs are loaded with students. Increasing numbers of parents seem to be getting behind music study as a superior way to teach the qualities of attention and focus, persistency in practice, and self-expression that studying an instrument provides, that are integral to high achievement later. If music isn't making a comeback in public school classrooms, it seems to be doing so in exploding early childhood programs and, as far as I know, successful attendance and fundraising at community music settlements for children. I also think that music ed residencies and outreach are getting taken more seriously by music students even with the loftiest musical aspirations, including enjoying the looser atmosphere, and I think this will continue to send good ideas and energy in this direction.

What this does for the music industry is another matter. The benefits for a child of music study are obvious: but what are the benefits of spending $200, plus parking and sitter, to take your family to the symphony? Your children sit in the dark, forced to be unnaturally quiet, watching distant people play music none of you understand. Many kids love it, but how does it compete against other opportunities both for them and for the family? And will they continue to love it after the fifth grade?

If I were an orchestra or chamber ensemble or classical series, I would be thinking families, families, families; how to reach into this great interest in music study among the high achieving families? But organizations will have to discard certain frameworks and work for more integrated solutions. What’s the relationship of the local symphony with local prominent music teachers? Can Daniel Barenboim name three high school music teachers in Chicago? That's a laugh. What if the community school hired a touring quartet to come play, and in the three weeks before, all the early childhood, theory, and skills classes worked together to expose kids to, and talk about, the repertoire that was coming to town? They could then have a performance, with activities broken out by age, and charge for the whole thing, and offer a discount ticket to come see them when they play under the auspices of the local chamber music society, organizations which last I heard could use some more butts in the seats. Families with little kids are not that "old" after all; many young parents fit into the under 35 demographic, and might keep going to concerts once the kids are gone. In any case, the health of the larger classical institutions will probably fade just as the boom in music study grows, and if so it will be due to institutions' own laziness and lack of imagination.

Posted by: Eric Barnhill at December 7, 2005 12:16 PM


First - perhaps in coming late I've missed the responses that say this, but what an amazing idea, to work out a book like this in public on the web! If nothing else, the model itself might function as a metaphor for how to break out of a "classical" isolation and solipsism.

As it happens, the question of "whither classical music" has been on my mind too, and so I did what teachers do: I organized a graduate seminar at UCLA, which we took to calling, with some irony, the "death of classical music seminar." We weren't trying to bring this eventuality on, or stave it off. We were just trying to figure out how art music got here - and what it all might mean for the larger musical culture around it. (Several of the students are busily analyzing the same problems as they arise in jazz, rock, and even techno…)

I'm going to stay riveted to this ongoing discussion; I hope I'll have something useful to contribute. But I can help acting like a professor at the start, and providing an annotated little reading list of sources that contextualize some of the disputes that posters are having.

1. Julian Johnson's Who Needs Classical Music is not quite the only instance these days of what one might call "apologias" for classical music. For those who are fans of tonality, there is a fascinating and stern book by Brian K. Etter called From Classicism to Modernism: Western Art Music and the Metaphysics of Order. John Winsor, a composer, has recently released a self-published book making an argument for what he calls "mainstream literary music" (Breaking the Sound Barrier). And Lawrence Kramer, a professor of English at Fordham and pioneer "new musicologist," is working on a manuscript called "Why Classical Music Still Matters." (I think Greg and he will have much in common, as it happens...) Leon Botstein has a great piece in the new Cambridge History of 20th-ct Music on "museum culture and the politics of subsidy" that lays out many of the economic contradiction of classical music as a "stagnant service" in a commodity culture.

2. There is, both in Greg’s own work and the responses to it, a strong desire to look back to the history of WAM, especially to the “golden moments” of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and imagine that many of the contradictions, malaises, and (dare we say it) pathologies of the current moment were absent – that people back in Mozart’s, Beethoven’s, even Brahms’s time had a natural organic relation to “classical music” before it became classical, and started down the path that is now experienced as problematic, ancient, alien, dying, etc. A good corrective to this nostalgia (for that’s what it is) is the work of William Weber, a historian of concert life who has written several books on the subject. As far back as 1975 (Music and the Middle Class), Weber was pointing out that his research showed a “classical music public” forming in the 1830s, whose elitism, antiquarianism, anti-commercialism, and sense of itself as a threatened minority of “true believers” in a musical world dominated by more up-to-date commercial popular music seemed eerily familiar to a late 20th-ct observer. The “classical music world” of 1830 worshiped Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, and especially Beethoven, as you might expect, while the “popular music world” ran after expensive, ephemeral trash like…Chopin, Donizetti, and Meyerbeer. In the classical world of 1830, specialized knowledge of older music, the ability to discriminate tastefully, and insider ability to decipher musical technicalities were highly prized; this was seen as the province of educated members of the professional classes (mostly men), while new popular music (remember – Chopin and Liszt) gave thrills to the nouveau riche (especially females) in the expensive salons of their vulgar new mansions.

Weber is interested in the structural transformation of the elites in European cities, and the way the remnants of aristocracy and the rising “upper middle-classes” merged to form a “high-status” commercial public for music. But one detail will serve, I think, to show how unfamiliar and destabilizing a historical perspective can be. Greg and “Anonymous” have been circling around the ideas of the amateur (“garage band”) and the professional in music making, and their proper relation to the canon of great “classical music.” It seems self-evident that a highly professional attitude must go along with the “complexity” of classical music, right? But in the early 19th-ct, when the idea of “classical music” first becomes a sociological reality, not so. The world of classical music (ancient music, Beethoven, etc.) was dominated by gentlemen amateurs, and the low performance standards of their “philharmonic societies” were often the subject of scornful jibing in the press. On the other hand, it was in the realm of the most up-to-date fashionable musics (Chopin, Rossini, etc.) that musical performers were able to demand to be treated like “real professionals” – both because the expensive display the music required presumed long training, and because their “business-like” attitude toward concert life harmonized with the habits and attitudes of the self-made millionaires who paid for their services as teachers, had them as performers at salons, and attended their “benefit concerts.”

3. I’m going to stop there, but just let me register that my own readings suggest that the general question of the “discursive” nature of art music – the idea that classical music is different because it has goal-directed teleology, and thus demands to be listened to differently than pop music, and can do things for society that pop musi can’t – is the single dominant idea in current definitions and justifications of the “classical” in music (it’s not just Julian Johnson’s idea). I’m glad that Greg seems skeptical of this, because I certainly am. More on that later, perhaps…


Posted by: Robert Fink at December 7, 2005 1:11 PM

Apologies to all -- I haven't been able to respond to comments nearly as much as I'd like to, thanks to the pressure of other work. Right now I'm in New Hampshire, watching bad TV to clear my brain while I prepare to spend all day tomorrow helping small presenting organizations in northern New England discuss whatever problems they might have when they present classical concerts. I'm sure I'll learn a lot. Like many people who live in big cities and work with big classical music organizations, I don't know enough about what goes on in smaller places.

In January, I'll be presenting ideas (probably radical ones) for audience development to the board of directors of one of the country's top orchestras. I mention these things in order to stress that this book project involves more than theory. Eventually I want to connect the practical problems classical music is having directly to the cultural problems we've been discussing here. As I e-mailed Robert Fink privately, I have a feeling that our chickens are coming home to roost -- we've so misconceived (in both theory and practice) what classical music ought to be, that people are now looking at us, and saying, in effect, "Who cares?"

Of course, the culture has also changed, and new things have jumped up to claim everyone's attention, including new forms of musical art. But to blame the current classical music crisis entirely on the culture would amount to saying that the culture is a mess, and that we in the classical music world are just fine and ducky. Which on the face of it is pretty absurd. Anyone who believes it is welcome to go back to the 1920s, let's say, and see what life was like then.

Posted by: Greg Sandow at December 7, 2005 11:59 PM

Classical music will be dead only when there is no musician to play his/her instrument.

Do not confuse the business/industry aspect with the creative product of structured music

Posted by: Brian Meighan at December 14, 2005 1:46 PM

Alex at the Wellsung blog, whom I will note is in his early 20's, does a tap dance on Sandow's latest bit of misguided fluff:


Money quotes:

Sandow's exercise is this: take the viewpoint of someone with no serious interest in, predisposition towards, or even attraction to the classical music tradition (blah, blah, its a stupid term--I think we all know what we're talking about here). Then mine the classical music experience for things which would maybe surprise the person who isn't interested and thinks its boring in the first place--musicians should dress down; play in a bar; bop around more while playing; the program notes should be less detailed; louds should be louder; softs should be softer; and the list goes on. And that's just the entertainment side. There's an attitude problem keeping his hypothetical Philistine away as well. He suggests musicians and those who love classical music must: stop wallowing in its elitist trappings; stop going on about aspects too difficult for everyone to understand; and, especially, stop pretending its a more complicated or demanding tradition than pop or jazz.


Last thing. I need to let the air out of his rock music=authentic experience/classical music=fake elitist experience construct. If he thinks rock music is all about an authentic passion that somehow eludes classical music, I would invite him to come to one of our many fine clubs in Williamsburg and prove to me that 50 percent of the experience isn't just feelin' cool and enjoying the ambiance of the other dour hipsters. Live music is a social experience and it comes with a healthy dose of superficial environmental factors that have little to do with the actual music. That's fine. But let's not pretend like people that go to rock music don't have their own petty reasons for doing so. I mean...please.


Posted by: Henry Holland at December 14, 2005 7:34 PM

I'm in agreement with all those who say there's a crisis in classical music, and central to this crisis is a failure of renewal.
But I've found that many who argue for more contemporary music on concert programs are also advocates of high modernism. When they demand more "contemporary" music, they mean Boulez, Stockhausen, Carter and their minions. According to modernist dogma, the more dissonant and atonal a work is, the more "authentically" contemporary it is. But high modernism, I believe, is anything but culturally authentic. On the contrary, it dwells in a sound-world utterly foreign to Western culture's fundamental ideas about music. And "repeated listening" isn't the answer, either. If a century of modernist experimenting has proven anything, it's that you can lead a culture to water but you can't make it drink.

Finally, I think there’s something scary about the idea of programming by poll: audiences aren't going to request music they don’t know. I think a leadership role on the part of programmers is vital. But for this to work (i.e. for the public to be enticed by an unfamiliar name on a program) a level of trust must be established. This trust has been mightily abused for decades – to the point that many concert-goers now "trust" that if they’re confronted with something they don't know, they won't like it.

Posted by: Colin Eatock at March 24, 2006 6:54 AM


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