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March 20, 2006

Book 2.0
Episode 3: Bigger Problems

Previously, in episodes one and two:

[This is the start of the book’s introduction.]

This is a book about the future of classical music. It’s a necessary book, because classical music is in crisis, and people have burning questions. Is the classical music audience growing older? Will classical music disappear?

Many people can get caught up in these questions —classical music professionals, people in the classical music audience (who often love classical music even more than the professionals do), people who like classical music but don’t go to classical concerts (and might wonder why), and of course people who care about the current state of culture. I’m writing this book for all these people, including those who don’t know much about classical music.

But now I’d better state my own beliefs. I think the game is mostly over, by which I don’t mean that classical music will disappear, but that the classical music world will change, maybe drastically, and that classical music institutions — even big, brand-name orchestras and opera companies — that don’t change fast enough might collapse.

Change is needed because the old ways aren’t working. The audience, as data from the National Endowment for the Arts pretty clearly shows, is in fact getting older. Younger people, even people in their fifties, aren’t starting to go to classical concerts in the numbers we saw in past generations. Fundraising has become more difficult. In the orchestra world, there’s a long-term pattern of expenses rising faster than income, which — especially when combined with falling ticket sales and falling donations — means a serious financial squeeze, which if things down change, will only get worse in the future, leading to notably dire private projections about where things are going. The trend is downward, and concerts that don’t sell well are starting to look very empty.

You can still read the full texts of episodes one and two. And I encourage you to do it! (I’m thinking that, as the book unfolds, I’ll always keep the three most recent episodes online. Older ones won’t be available.)

As I mentioned at the end of the last episode, there remain a few bright spots—some stunning performances (especially, I think, of Baroque music and new music); the continued advance of new music into mainstream concert halls and opera companies; the upsurge of classical music on the Internet; and the apparently inexhaustible supply of kids who want to study classical music, and even make careers in it. How all of this—especially the inexhaustible interest of enough kids to keep classical music going—can coexist with looming disaster will be something I’ll explore in detail in the book. Classical music seems to be in limbo, endangered but not yet toppling, changed from what it used to be, but facing even larger, maybe startling, unprecedented changes.

But lying behind everything I’ve talked about—even the aging audience and the tightening financial noose—are two much more basic, much more crucial problems, a drift away from classical music in the culture all around us, and, within the classical music world, something very like stagnation, a failure to engage with contemporary life. Obviously these two developments—both of them very long-term trends—are tied to each other. If people lose interest in classical music, and the classical music world refuses to engage with them, then of course they lose interest even more, and the classical music world finds them even harder to engage.

And it ought to be equally obvious that these two trends, taken together, are the largest cause of classical music’s problems—as opposed, let’s say, to something often cited as the leading cause, the decline in music education in our schools. This “blame it on the loss of music education” outcry (really common in the classical music world) makes me just a little crazy, I have to say. Of course I’d like to see music education restored. (And not just for classical music, but that’s a story for another time.) But why do we think music classes disappeared? Surely they vanished in part precisely because of that long-term drift (or is it a stampede?) away from classical music. So then how are we going to bring them back without reversing that long-term trend, or in other words without some kind of revolution in our culture? Sometimes the classical music world reminds me of an old Mad magazine parody of King Kong (dating, actually, back to the 1950s, when Mad was a comic book). The film crew is trying to find King Kong. “Look for footprints!” somebody says, or words to that effect. “Does anybody see any footprints?” Meanwhile they’re standing inside a giant one. We wonder why there’s a crisis, and miss the simplest, most obvious cause: People are losing interest in classical music, and the classical music world isn’t giving them any good reason to change their minds.

But then why did people lose interest in the first place? When I went to college, back in the early 1960s, I’m not going to say that classical music was a majority taste, but—despite the folk music boom, despite Bob Dylan’s first albums, despite the looming presence of artistic jazz just outside the cultural mainstream—it still seemed that when a lot of smart students took a serious interest in music, that music was classical. I remember my freshman roommate going crazy for Wagner, listening over and over to the final scene from Die Walküre on an Angel recording with Hans Hotter and Birgit Nilsson, transfigured by the waves of deep emotion of the score. Meanwhile, out in the wider world, Life, maybe the most popular American magazine, asked Aaron Copland, the leading American composer, to write a piano piece, and published it, in musical notation, for its readers to play. At the opening of the Metropolitan Opera, the gala first performance of the season, you’d see celebrities. Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher! I saw them there myself, sweeping up the grand staircase.

So where did all this go, and why did popular culture rise up to replace it? Here’s where we run up against some of the questions I asked—or quoted other people asking—at the start of the first episode. Has our culture degenerated? Has it grown too shallow--too noisy and dumb, too frenetic, too careless--to support classical music? Or has classical music simply fallen behind the rest of the world, and gotten out of date? I’m going to spend a fair amount of time answering these questions in this book, and as everyone can surely guess, my choice is answer (b), that classical music has gotten out of date. Popular culture is many things, some of them pretty ghastly, but at its best it’s the greatest outpouring of popular creativity that the world has ever seen. It’s also gotten smarter over the years (an insight nailed in Stephen Johnson’s ironically titled book, Everything Bad is Good for You) and for classical music to ignore it would be suicide—financial suicide, because how can you attract a new audience if you turn your back on everything they like, and even artistic suicide, because how can you become a contemporary art form if you turn your back on contemporary life?

But of course classical music, as I’ve said, really has turned its back on contemporary life, by refusing to engage it. Most obviously it’s done that by maintaining its formality—the penguin suits male classical musicians wear, the utter silence in the concert hall, the ban on applauding between movements of a classical piece (though all this, to be fair, is starting to change).

But formality isn’t the main problem. What’s worse—and a far more notable sign of stagnation—is what I’ve elsewhere called “an odd blankness,” but which really amounts to a massive failure to communicate. Facing the outside world, people in classical music haven’t learned to communicate any real interest, any excitement, any tangible artistic commitment, any reason, in short, why anyone should care about classical music. And facing their own constituency, their own loyal (if shrinking) audience, classical music professionals won’t even explain the most basic things about what’s going on. This isn’t intentional; in fact, I think it’s largely unconscious, the result of accumulated habits whose suffocating impact we’re only just starting to look at.

Here’s a small but telling example. It’s customary, in program notes for orchestral concerts, to list the instruments that play in each piece: two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings. Why this is done, or, most importantly, what the classical music audience makes of it, I can only just begin to imagine. If there were two horns instead of four, or three trumpets instead of two, how many people in the audience could hear the difference? And how are all these instruments used? That’s the most artistically productive question, but the program notes almost never answer it.

And yet there’s something worse. Among the musicians in any major orchestra, the principal trumpet and principal horn enjoy a special privilege: They don’t have to play all the notes written in their parts. If there’s some passage they’d rather not play—typically something written for the entire horn or trumpet section, in which they might tire themselves out, when they’d rather be saving their strength for their next solo—they simply don’t play it, and another horn or trumpet player sits on stage to take up the slack. Thus, in a piece written for four horns, you’ll sometimes see five horns playing, and in a piece for three trumpets, you’ll sometimes see four. But do the program notes explain this? Never! So the instruments arrayed on stage might flatly contradict the instrumentation listed in the program book, and no one seems to care, though the truth really is that no one ever thinks about this disconnect. There’s a standard way that orchestral concerts are presented, and everyone involved gets so caught up in all the aspects of this standard way that nobody looks up and asks, “Does this even make the slightest sense?”

And things get worse. A few years ago, the Metropolitan Opera put on Rossini’s L’italiana in Algerí, a farce about an Italian woman making trouble in a fanciful (and just maybe, in the modern world, offensive) vision of Muslim Algiers. At the end of the first act, with all the characters getting more dazed and confused by the minute, the singers start singing nonsense. “I’ve got a bell in my head going ding ding ding. I’ve got a drum going boom, boom, boom.” The music hurtles onward; the singers scramble (probably without much success) to keep up with the orchestra; the whole thing dissolves in craziness.

You see this onstage. And then you open the program book. Inside are program notes, which talk about the critical edition of the score, or in other words the things that musicologists have learned about what Rossini—who dashed off this piece almost two hundred years ago, in an environment far more commercial than scholarly—may actually have written down. What did he write in the original score? What did he revise for later performances? What did other musicians decide they had to change, when the score was published? Some of this can be very interesting, and the differences between one version and another sometimes can be clearly audible. It turns out, for example, that Rossini originally used a high-pitched piccolo instead of a flute, which gives his music—already more than a little crazy—a madcap whistling edge.

So it makes sense to read about the critical edition. But the notes (as I remember them) didn't ever bother to say that the opera is funny. They shift the center of attention away from the effect of the performance (or, in other words, away from all the reasons why you’d want to go and see it), and place it instead on all the scholarly thinking involved in choosing among various versions of what—despite that piccolo—are often tiny details. So again the audience is faced with a contradiction, this time between what’s in the program notes and what’s happening onstage (assuming, that is, that the shifted center of gravity doesn’t leap out of the program notes and start infecting the performance).

These are the lessons the classical music world teaches—not on purpose, but habitually—to everybody who loves classical music: Your experience doesn’t matter (it’s not your business how many horns you see onstage), and we’ll tell you what we think is good for you to know (all hail the critical edition). The enterprise of classical music, in other words, operates from the top down. Students are taught in music school to obey the rules, to learn the officially sanctioned ways to play the music, and keep their creativity in check. Professional musicians say their job is only to realize the composer’s intentions, thus reducing themselves to a servant’s role. Scholars tell the world that the meaning of a classical piece lies in its abstract structure, thus muting the force of everything we hear in the music (and making people—even loyal, long-time classical music lovers—who don’t understand the structure think they aren’t educated).

In all these ways, and more, classical music is robbed of its force. In one of the best books ever written about any classical music subject, Jan Swafford’s biography of Brahms, there’s a wonderful phrase about Beethoven: “His music,” Swafford writes, “seems to take each of us by the shoulders and shake us, speaking person to person, saying: I am telling you something of supreme importance.” (Swafford’s italics.) Other classical composers do their own version of that, maybe not shaking us, but charming us, touching us, caressing us, transporting us, challenging us, hurting us, warning us, scaring us. Yet how much of this comes across in performance? Do we actually have the experience Swafford describes, in classical concert halls? We’re all but prevented from having it, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, and for other reasons too, among them the remorseless (even if ever so slightly easing) concentration on music of the past, masterworks that are played over and over again, so many times that it’s hard for them to surprise us. Music of the present—in a classical music world that functioned very differently from the one we know—might hit us harder.

And so classical music ends up as a refuge from the contemporary world, a place where surprising or disturbing things almost never happen. This, then, becomes the reason that classical music can’t find a new audience. It’s not that anyone needs to learn to understand the music; instead, they have to learn to understand the classical music world, to be socialized into its odd (and strongly ritualized) blankness, with all its contradictions, and all its secrets that are never explained.

In the next episode, online April 3: With any luck, I’ll conclude the introduction to the book, with some thoughts about what a future classical music world might look like, and a personal note about what classical music means to me.

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Posted by gsandow on March 20, 2006 3:52 AM


This is already better than the first try. A bunch of palpable hits in this one. Get up in classical music's grill, Mr. Sandow!

It's completely obvious to me that we need to be playing about half music of the last 25 years in *most* concerts. I hate to say this, but when I see a Beethoven-Brahms-Haydn concert, I pretty much feel no impetus to go to it, unless it's being done by performers who I know are going to blow my mind. The last thing the world needs is another dozen merely competent performances of the Tempest Sonata. I get really excited when I see new-ish music on the program, because I know I'll be challenged. More importantly, by engaging with that music, I'll get to be a (very small) part of the formation of the classical canon rather than a recipient of its benign but oppressive wisdom.

As someone who is frustrated by my own seeming inability to liven up my writing on classical music without feeling like I'm farting in church, I am wondering if you are going to address the state of classical music criticism at some point.

Thanks! And I agree -- I don't think we'll see a healthy classical music world until at least half (and maybe more) of the music played on concerts is new or recent. I'm going to address this at some length in the book.

As for criticism, I'm certainly going to talk about how classical music is talked and written about, as I've done in my blog (where I've especially gone after publicists). And criticism is fair game when I'm doing that. I've often wished that classical music criticism was more like rock criticism, so I'm certainly going to make that point in the book.

Posted by: Lindemann at March 20, 2006 8:30 PM

Your ideas are fascinating/terrific. Hope that you can get an editor so that the ideas come through more clearly.

Thanks. Every writer loves to work with a good editor. I'd be grateful for any suggestions you'd like to make. It's hard, sometimes, to put all these ideas concisely.

Posted by: ceithaml at March 21, 2006 5:41 AM

i.e. This is a necessary book about classical music.

Necessary because the field is in crisis, and the book is badly needed. I'd have thought that was clear!

Posted by: ceithaml at March 21, 2006 5:43 AM


Could the 'failure to communicate' also include much of 20th century music itself? It's often said that in the good ole days audiences used to flock to hear the latest piece of new music, but no more. What was it that changed that behavior? Could it be that they didn't like what they were hearing?

In the 19th century, when the classical music world as we know it began to emerge, the audience was solidly middleclass. It didn't have exalted tastes in music. Brahms, for instance, went over its head with his symphonies, at least at first, while pleasing the middleclass audience (and making a fortune from it) with his waltzes, Hungarian dances, and the Requiem.

But after the turn of the 20th century, a lot of new music, certainly all the prestigious stuff (Stravinsky, especially Schoenberg), was written for a high-art audience, and left the middle class behind. The classical music audience is still middeclass, as anyone can see at any classical event. So it's not surprising that it doesn't like music that wasn't meant for it in the first place.

That's a major disconnect -- major classical music organizations playing modernist pieces for an audience that hates them. The failure to communicate comes in the failure to ask the audience what it thinks; to try, somehow, not just to explain the music to the audience in preconcert lectures and program notes, but really to have some give and take with members of the audience about what the music is about; to program, in some cases, new music that the audience might like; and to engage a wider community, trying to find people who really will like the modernist works.

In the last decade, a lot of audience-friendly new music has emerged. See, for instance, my wife Anne Midgette's piece about new opera in the New York Times last Sunday. Opera companies, it's clear, aren't looking for high art in new operas, but rather for theatrical pieces that their audience will like. Which then makes me wonder what will happen to high-art new opera!

(Many thanks to Jan Swafford, whose biography of Brahms taught me a lot about the middleclass audience, and why modernists rejected it.)

Posted by: David at March 21, 2006 6:43 AM

This very worthwhile comment comes from someone in the business who wants to be anonymous.

Permit me to offer a real-world perspective re your comment that "orchestras should try to find people who really like the modernist works." That's very true, but the cold, hard fact is that, at the present time, it's a small audience.

The research I’ve seen says somewhere between 5 – 10% of the current orchestra audience likes modern or contemporary. And the other 90%+ are becoming increasingly reluctant to buy an expensive ticket for a concert where half the program is music they dislike.

There’s a fundamental law of consumer behavior at work here -- people don't spend time or money on something they don't want. This fundamental reality applies to consumer behavior across the board, including orchestras.

I’ve also seen analyses of ticket sales that shows there is a strong, statistically valid inverse relationship between the word 'premiere' in a program – world, national or local -- and ticket sales. In other words, say “premiere” in a classical context and you can count on lower attendance.

These are just the realities of the orchestra business today. And here’s one more cold, hard reality: if new music sold more tickets, you can bet your bass clef orchestras would be doing a lot more of it.

I confess the data I see makes me kinda skeptical that the answer lies in whether or not we play new music, in and of itself. I sense that the answer is to connect. And to deploy all the elements of the experience -- the music, how it's performed, how it's presented, etc. etc. -- towards that purpose.

I think what you're REALLY arguing, Greg, is that we need to change the paradigm, challenge the assumption that today's audience is tomorrow's audience, that today's concerts are tomorrow's concerts, that today's organizations are tomorrow's organizations. The tricky part is getting from today to tomorrow; I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

Posted by: Greg Sandow at March 24, 2006 4:37 PM

This is a fascinating "dissection" of the "problems" of classical music. As someone trained as a classical musician (singer) and lifelong music lover, it has always struck me that the classical world has over-intellectualized something that is essentially a sensual experience and then decries the fact that people don't come to concerts.

The age we live in makes concertgoing a non-starter. Sitting quietly, in long rows in a darkened hall after a day at the office, a rush to get to the concert and the cost of an "evening" out doesn't have much appeal for the majority of under 65's. And then to read notes that are dry and unappealing doesn't aid in making the experience worthwhile.

Time, technology, lifestyle,cost, and undervaluing the emotional impact of music all make for a diminution of interest for concert going.

One of the appeals of rock music is its direct emotional impact on its listeners who cannot refrain from physically responding (watch the body movement at rock concerts, which by the way are expensive but as the fans say "way worth it". It's an experience for them....something that a symphony concert rarely could be called)

The classical music "industry" has itself to blame for so much of this. The separation of the music from popular culture is nothing new and is not caused by the purveyors of popular culture--the classical music world has set itself apart by making it a class and status endeavor, by convincing people that they had to be "educated" to it, and by snubbing anything that could be called "popular". Stuffiness has been promoted and now it's really working against the establishment.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I don't think the music is in crisis--the institutions of it are. They are more like dusty museums(which, by the way, have begun serious campaigns to make themselves more relevant and important to the everyday citizen) than highly charged, sensual experiences.
How to fix that? Now, for me that's the question.

Thanks so much for this, Betty. How to fix these problems -- or at least a lot of ideas about that, as well as a detailed exploration of what's already been done -- will be the climax of my book.

Classical music, of course, has a lot of rhythmic power. I've seen people banging their fists during classical concerts, even at, of all things, an Alfred Brendel recital (he, of course, is a rather scholarly pianist). So I agree -- there's nothing wrong with the music. We just have to let it loose!

Posted by: betty luse at March 27, 2006 9:55 AM

"And so classical music ends up as a refuge from the contemporary world, a place where surprising or disturbing things almost never happen."

You've said many important things in this work, but I'll just expand on this one.

There are a number of important meta-narratives about classical music, such as "classical music is elitist" and "classical music is for old people," -- "classical music is relaxing" is another of the important ones.

It's no accident that so many of the most commercially successful classical CDs are of the "Music For A Quiet Afternoon" variety. All-classical radio stations tend to focus on music that doesn't have too many rough edges, because they know most of their listeners want pretty background music for driving and work and relaxing at home -- in fact last year I happened upon a fund drive for Vermont's all-classical NPR station and the guy making the pitch said something like "Classical Music is so relaxing, and that's why you love it."

I don't know whether the music is being harmed by unreasonable pigeonholing, or if in the modern cultural landscape "relaxing" is simply the main thing that classical music is still good for. Either way, an important issue.

Thanks, Galen. I agree -- this is an important issue. I'm going to have more to say about it in the book. What's most revealing, I think, is that this attitude is found deep within the core of the classical music audience. I got used, over many years, to hearing people who don't go to classical concerts say these things. "Classical music is calm. That's why I like it." So imagine my surprise when surveys of orchestra subscribers starting showing the same thing. These people said they like classical music because they're inspiring, spiritual, energizing -- which amounts to just a higher octave (so to speak) of "calm."

Among much else, this view falsifies what a lot of classical pieces are really about. There's a lot of conflict and turmoil, obviously, even in someone like Mozart. Above all, though, what does this view of classical music do for the music being written now? Pretty obviously, new music gets entirely left out. If it reflects modern life at all, it won't be calm, won't belong in the refuge.

I've even heard people say some of these things consciously. "Classical music takes me away from the problems of everyday life…from the turmoil of the modern world…" Etc. But maybe this is inevitable when what we're mostly playing is the music of the long-ago past.

Posted by: Galen H. Brown at March 28, 2006 5:05 PM


My initial comment is a suggestion for the future of "classical music": abandon the term! Part of the problem with attracting younger people is symantic, using terms which turn these younger audiances off. I can't say that I know what "classical music" is but I've heard the term most of my life. However, I find it isn't much used in the music world. It doesn't even seem to really mean anything since it remains undefined. So can we find a new term???

Robert A. Ramsay

Hi, Robert. What term would you suggest? ASCAP, the performance rights organization I belong to as a composer, uses "Concert Music" as its term for "classical." But that has ambiguities of its own. There are jazz and rock concerts as well as classical ones.

My own view, for what it's worth, is that it's hard to change terminiology. A long time ago I tried to propose "alternative classical" as the term for some kinds of new classical music, and while many people (well, some people) thought that was a good idea, the term never caught on. And "classical music" does seem to be a term in wide use. Billboard, the trade magazine of the record industry, uses it, for instance. They have classical charts along with their pop, R&B, country, jazz, whatever charts. And just recently in some closed captioning on TV I saw a wonderful use of the term. The scene in a movie was an upscale restaurant. And the captions -- noting a sound effect, as these captions often do -- had first two musical notes, then this: "[classical]" I'm sure there wasn't a single person watching who couldn't imagine what that music sounded like.

Posted by: Robert A. Ramsay at March 28, 2006 6:06 PM

I would like to comment on the following:

"I've even heard people say some of these things consciously. "Classical music takes me away from the problems of everyday life…from the turmoil of the modern world…""

I agree that the marketing of classical music as "relaxing" or "soothing" can be frustrating. However is it really so bad if people use it to get away from everyday life? For me, this is one of the benefits of classical music! When I am listening to a really good performance, I get so caught up in it, that I am no longer thinking about the office or about domestic chores. It is a wonderful rest for my brain to be concentrating so intensely on something else!

I totally agree with Betty Luse that the classical world has over-intellectualized something that is essentially a sensual experience. There is nothing wrong with scholarly dissections of every piece if you're into that, but I am 26 (which I think should be irrelevant) and when I try to encourage friends to come to concerts, I often get a response along these lines... "It's too much hard work, I don't need that after a hard day at the office." or "I don't really understand it." There is a preconception that you have to be an intellectual and have some sort of educational background before you can fully appreciate the music. Of course, it is no bad thing to have a deep understanding (for some people it enhances their enjoyment) but I really feel strongly that the appeal (especially to newcomers!) should be in the emotional value, and in its ability to take you away from your own life for a short while, and certainly nothing to do with "self-improvement" or being able to claim intellectual superiority through "understanding" it.

The problem is that this emotional involvement may not come instantly - you might have to revisit a piece several times in order to start to love it, and this does not tie in with the instant gratification that we expect nowadays. Another important point is that not all classical pieces are emotionally (or equally) appealing - in fact, some are frankly boring or plain hard work (at least to me). Perhaps that is shocking, but really, what's wrong with saying that? I think it's important for the future of classical music to market its incredible diversity, and the fact that people may need to try lots and lots of different things before they discover what makes them tick. Why should they bother when it is so easy to find other forms of entertainment with a more instant appeal? Well this is difficult, but with the digital age and the ability to sample online without committment, fear or expense, we should really start to see what consumers (new and old) really like. As the classical music consumer segmentation study of 2002 put it, "one's man revelation is another man's anaesthesia."

Frances, thanks so much for this. I agree -- there isn't, and shouldn't be, any one way to listen to classical music. People should take anything from it that they want, just as we take anything we want from movies, sports, you name it. Or food. Am I fleeing from the world when I eat at a terrific restaurant?

The problem might only be, then, that too many people seem to take classical music as a refuge from the world, and not enough react to it as a real artistic experience. I think you can see that from -- among other things -- the books written about classical music. On one hand, there are scholarly books. And at the opposite extreme are the many beginners' guides to classical music, almost all of which tend to be -- forgive me, everyone who writes these -- a little credulous and simple-minded. Where's the stuff in the middle, the classical equivalent of the 33 1/3 series of pop music books, each one intelligently going into depth about one famous pop album. The questions that those books raise are deeper than the questions raised about classical music even in the scholarly books. They go into the meaning of music in our culture, for instance, something that classical music listeners -- both casual and scholarly -- tend to take for granted.

I rarely (well, almost never) come out of a classical concert thinking more deeply about anything (except the music itself), or feeling that I've learned anything new about the world. But I routinely might feel that coming out of a good movie, or an art show. And it's not just that a lot of classical music has no words, and hence no overt subject. I have the same experience with operas and song recitals. Or the same lack of this experience. It's in this sense that I think classical music has become a refuge. It just doesn't engage anyone about the problems -- or, to be more optimistic, the joys -- of the lives we all lead. Obviously there are exceptions, but I think it's fair to say that what I'm saying is the rule. And if I'm wrong, I'd love to hear about the experiences people have with classical music that turns them toward the world outside, rather than away from it.

Fascinating fact: In one survey of the orchestral audience, people who often to go orchestra concerts were asked about their interest in other arts. Many of them said they also went to the theater. But a surprisingly high percentage of these theatergoers said they were unhappy if the play had an unpleasant subject. Unfortunately I don't have comparable data for playgoers who don't go to orchestra concerts, so I can't say for sure that this proves anything. But it at least suggests that classical music fans may be a particular kind of art consumer, one not especially interested in being challenged or disturbed.

Posted by: Frances Maxwell at March 29, 2006 5:26 AM

It is hard to change a system, I know. Nevertheless, I find myself preferring "art music" to "classical music." With all the cross-fertilization between musical cultures going on, and the lines between "classical" and "popular" music being blurred, as well as those between "Western" and other musical cultures, "classical" music seems more and more to refer to music within the Western tradition.

As art music becomes whatever it is becoming, and the profession evolves into whatever it is evolving into, this phenomenon of old distinctions becoming anachronistic is key. Exactly how, I'm not sure, but it is certainly part of making our art music more relevant to contemporary life.

Posted by: Eric Edberg at March 29, 2006 8:44 PM

Eric Edberg posted this important comment to episode one. I thought I'd repeat it here, so more people can see it.

Greg, you write
I tend to think that music education, or rather its delcine, is a result of the larger decline of classical music, not a cause of it. But this is something I'll take up in the book.

Clearly, it's a chicken and egg situation Nevertheless, the declining audiences (and increasing average age of those audiences) for traditional classical music presentations may well be more a result of cutbacks, resulting from financial pressures, than you are acknowledging. Many arts programs were cut--with much remorse-- over the last 35 years as the result of financial exigency, rather than as the result of declining interest in classical music. A school system near where I live in central Indiana has just announced enormous cutbacks in arts instruction, sports, and physical education, all as a result of financial problems. Don't you think it's reasonable to expect that the generation of kids in that district who won't have an instrumental music experience will be less likely to develop an interest in non-pop music?

Virtually every adult I know who is deeply involved with classical music also plays or sings as an amateur, or used to. It's an analogous situation to professional sports. What's more boring, for example, than golf on television? That's what I always thought, until I took up golf. Then it became fascinating. When I stopped golf due to back problems (and being horrible at it), it didn't take long before it was boring again. Now I know there are a lot of people who occasionally watch football, etc., who didn't play it growing up, but I imagine it's a safe bet that the vast majority of regular viewers, and especially of holders and users of season tickets, played football at least occasionally as kids.

Do you know if there are studies that show the correlation between having played classical music at one point in life and attendance at classical concerts? I bet it's pretty high.

That said, great project, to which I will be offering comments regularly.


Eric, thanks for this. You're right about the funding cutbacks, and I need to take those into account. That said, I'm still suspicious of drawing too close a cause and effect relationship between the decline in (classical) music education and the decline of the classical music audience. I don't know of studies about the correlation, or possible correlation, you mention. I wish there were some. I do know, anecdotally, that when I've led conversations with loyal audience members at major orchestras, a recurrent motif is people saying very emphatically that they don't know anything about music. It's then delightful to see them going on, sometimes, to make very cogent comments. But I take their disclaimers seriously. Maybe some of them, even many of them, took music lessons on some instrument when they were young, but that hasn't left them feeling that they know very much.

And as I e-mailed Eric, I'd be wary of establishing a cause and effect relationship in any case. Both music lessons (or some other experience playing classical music) and attendance at classical concerts could be caused by the same thing. We could theorize that there's some demographic background that inclines people toward going to classical concerts, and that music lessons come with that background, rather than causing the concertgoing, or being necessary for it.

In any case, there are younger people now starting to listen to classical music online (12% of all iTunes sales are classical, many, according to someone who used to be in charge of classical music on iTunes, to younger people). Most of them, we can guess, have never played classical music.

And then we have other musical genres, some of them pretty thorny, which found audeinces without anyone needing any special training or background. Bebop, when it started in the 1940s -- when all the beats started listening to it, of course they didn't have any jazz education. Likewise the vogue lately for world music, or the development of punk, or alternative rock. People don't listen to Radiohead's very substantial music because they'd played anything like it in their garage bands.

So at the very least, there's some other factor at work, which I'd guess is cultural resonance. You react to a style of music because it says something to you about who you are, and what's going on in the world around you. Whatever messages like that classical music may have, they're muted, and also very rarely discussed.

Which isn't to say that music education of some kind wouldn't help. Of course familiarity helps people get used to anything new. It just can't be guaranteed, in my view, to reverse long-term cultural trends.

Posted by: Greg Sandow at March 31, 2006 11:27 AM

I've posted an item, "The Seder and the Symphony", about some of these issues, inspired by this blog and book and those by Kyle Gann, to my own blog, at http://www.josephzitt.com/blog/?eid=26

It started as a comment here, but got much too long.

It's very much worth reading. Thanks, Joe.

Posted by: Joseph Zitt at March 31, 2006 5:14 PM

Hi, Greg! I’ve been meaning to write for a long time. I enjoy your blog, and your Book 2.0 posts contain a lot of good insights.

Your anonymous “someone in the business” wrote that “research . . . says somewhere between 5 – 10% of the current orchestra audience likes modern or contemporary.” This may be true, but I would think that it only underscores the need for classical musicians to connect with an audience that isn’t allergic to new music, an audience that doesn’t go to concerts seeking an escape “from the turmoil of the modern world,” as you wrote in your response to Galen H. Brown. Classical music needs this new audience not only for financial reasons but for artistic and creative reasons. The masterworks of composers such as Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms were definitely not intended as musical refuges from reality; listeners who insist on hearing them as such are, I believe, reducing them to kitsch. (Although maybe Haydn and Mozart wouldn’t have minded if there music were consumed as easy listening: I don’t know enough about music history to say.)

I don’t think that composers can be blamed for the current situation (although they may have been responsible for driving people away in the 1950s and ‘60s). I can understand why people wouldn’t want to hear post-Webernian serial compositions, or avant-garde chance music, but for several decades we've had a number of composers writing accessible music. In my CD collection are tonal (well, they sound tonal, anyway) pieces from after World War II, by composers such as Sallinen, Takemitsu, and Lutoslawski. I’d think that by now there would be a backlog of contemporary compositions awaiting an open-minded audience.

(A side note: I suspect that it’s not ugly music so much as boring and incomprehensible music that drives people away. After all, bands like KoRn, Slayer, and System of a Down make tons of money producing the most hateful, aggressive noise they possibly can. But it’s exciting and makes sense to its audience, whereas serialism tends to sound just random.)

The question, of course, is how to hook up contemporary composers with such an audience? I’ll be looking forward to your ideas.

Excellent points, here. Thanks, Peter. I'll definitely have more to say about this. As an old Slayer fan, back in the '80s, I very much like your last thought. The key is to understand what kind of people we're talking about. People who like edgy music aren't likely to feel at home at a classical concert, as classical concerts are currently staged. Too calm, too respectable, too blank.

So when you put edgy music on a mainstream classical concert, you might alienate the core classical audience, while also failing to attract the new audience that might like the music, because they don't like the classical ambience.

So then you need a new kind of concert. Which puts classical music organizations in an all-too familiar position -- having to do old-school classical events to please their existing audience, while at the same time looking to the future by doing something new. Which, to put it mildly, isn't easy for these groups to manage.

Posted by: Peter S. at April 1, 2006 11:30 PM

Thanks for attempting to document this issue. I often occupy myself with the worries and despair about the future of great music. I am closely attached (as an adult student in piano) to the Music Institute of Chicago. We have an adult piano camp and a Duo Piano Festival every year and I am part of a Duo Piano group that meets at private homes. We still see a great deal of interest but nothing on the scale of what used to be common. We have WFMT, the great Fine Arts radio station but it seems to be having a tough time. I call it "geriatric radio" because they seem to aim only at older people and I think they are now affiliating with NPR in order to survive. I will read with interest your upcoming episodes and I would probably purchase the book, on its completion. I believe your ideas are correct and leave room for hope. JHJ

Jim, thanks. I know I'm not the only one who sees these problems. There are many, many of us. I'm glad you think I'm on the right track

Posted by: Jim Jennings at April 13, 2006 5:36 PM


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