AJ Logo an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

May 14, 2006

Book 2.0 :
Summary of the 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.

But lying behind everything I’ve talked about are two much more basic 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. These trends Obviously these two 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 of course as classical music (and high art in general) recedes in our culture, popular culture rises up to replace it. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. Popular culture can be 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. For classical music to ignore it would be suicide. How can you attract a new audience if you turn your back on everything they like? How can you be a contemporary art form if you turn your back on contemporary life?

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?

Which is exactly what classical music has done, most obviously by maintaining its formality. But what’s worse is what I’ve elsewhere called “an odd blankness,” or in other words a massive failure to communicate. Even facing their own constituency, their own loyal (if shrinking) audience, classical music professionals won’t even explain very basic things about what’s going on—why, for instance, when an orchestra plays a Tchaikovsky symphony, there might be five horns on stage, when the program book says Tchaikovsky wrote the piece for four.

The enterprise of classical music 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.

So classical music is robbed of its force, and ends up as a refuge from the contemporary world—which then explains why we can’t find a new audience. People in the new audience would have to be socialized into the classical music world; they‘d have to accept its odd blankness, with all its contradictions, and all its secrets that are never explained.

But now how can we fix all these problems? First, classical music needs to become a contemporary art, part of contemporary culture, just as the visual art world is, or world music, or smart alternative rock bands, or art-house films

To do that, it has to look and feel contemporary. So we have to get rid of formal dress. The look (and content) of everything involved in a classical performance ought to be contemporary—advertising, brochures, everything printed in the program books given out at concerts, the way the musicians dress and act onstage, the way the music gets talked about.

And the music needs to be contemporary, too. Half the pieces played, maybe more, should be recent or new. New pieces, almost by their very nature, put us somewhere in the modern age. We need to tear down the walls, and let classical music breathe the same air that the rest of the world breathes. Once that happens, then the older repertoire should easily find its meaning and its place. If we’re deeply engrossed in playing John Adams and Steve Reich (along with composers we barely can imagine now), and we know why we’re doing it, then when we turn to play Bach or Mozart, we’ll know why we’re doing that, too.

And now I’ll suggest some concrete steps that could be taken right now. How do we get from here to whatever the classical music world will look like after it’s fixed?

One way we’ll get to the future is by admitting that we have to. We’ll go under, if we don’t change what we do. Another answer is that a new generation is taking over. Younger people may not believe in all the classical taboos. We should understand that everything doesn’t have to change at once. And in fact, it shouldn’t, because for the moment, at least, the classical music world still depends on its established audience. So for the next two years, we might see classical music moving down two roads, one for the existing audience, and another for the new one.

The new road won’t be entirely new, of course. Things already have been changing, and sometimes what I’ll recommend here will just be an expansion of things already in motion.

So here are the ideas:

  • Acknowledge pop music, and bring it into the classical music world. One way to do that: Classical music organizations should honor the non-classical music (especially the noncommercial kinds) in the towns they’re in.
  • We need to talk to our audience, and—even more important—create forums where they can talk back to us.
  • We need to connect to other arts. Other arts are more imaginative than we are, and function better in the current world. Classical music groups should open themselves to the other arts, and put on what might seem like avant-garde performances, the musical equivalent of the kind of art taking place elsewhere.
  • We should empower our musicians. Give musicians far more power in classical music organizations, especially the biggest ones.
  • We should create events. Each classical performance should be an event, whose purpose can be vividly stated. An extravagant example: One of my Juilliard students played in a concert of Chopin nocturnes, which began an hour before midnight in a darkened space, lit by candles. I’m not saying that every classical concert has to be so generously staged. But they all have to feel like special events.
  • We need to find a context for new music. Who likes it? Not the mainstream classical audience. So who’ll like it? We have to find those people. But we also have to find some newer music that the mainstream audience really will like, and find ways to present it so the mainstream audience will be strongly engaged. The Pittsburgh Symphony did this, playing three short new works on the first half of a concert program, and asking the audience to vote for its favorite at intermission. I was there; people in the audience were energized, and argued vigorously about which piece was best.
  • And finally: Let’s stop thinking that classical music is so very special. Certainly it has special qualities. But we shouldn’t pretend that it occupies a uniquely lofty plane, and—worst of all—that it requires special education for its listeners. When we think that, we separate ourselves from the rest of our culture, and make classical music’s problems even worse.

Of course I’ve heard objections to many things I say. Here’s a common one. Why, some people ask, do I want to dumb everything down?

I don’t, of course, That’s not what I’m about at all. If anything, I’d like to get more people to share my highbrow tastes, But really I’d rather respond to this objection by posing two questions of my own. First, what’s so smart about the way classical music is presented now? And, second, why do so many insiders worry that classical music might be getting dumb? I’ll consider the second question first. Clearly people feel—and I’m sure they feel this especially strongly in an age when classical music seems to be threatened—that high intelligence is something that sets classical music apart. It’s as if they’re saying, well, popular culture may be popular; it might make tons of money; but classical music is deeply thoughtful and profound.

This, of course, is a strikingly self-serving thing to think. It also reflects a very limited notion of what art and life are about, and, most strikingly, reflects a limited understanding of classical music’s history, since in the past the composers we now revere as deep classical masters in fact created all kinds of music, including some works that were meant to be nothing but pure entertainment.

And when we say that classical music is deeply intelligent, what kind of intelligence are we talking about? One way to answer that is to look at my other question: What’s so smart about the way we present classical music now? Answer: our current presentation isn’t smart at all. That’s true for many reasons:

Musicians dress up in formal clothes, which really say more about the social class that used to support classical music than they do about the true nature of classical music today.

  • We often enough put pieces that don’t fit together on our concert programs, just to make the concert long enough to fill out an evening.
  • We perform the same old pieces over and over.
  • We marginalize the music of the present day.
  • We ignore the real meaning that classical works from the past had when they were new.

So what does our present style of performance really do? It acts out a pantomime of profundity and intelligence. With silence and formal dress, we put a frame around the music, a frame that says, “Something very important is happening here.”

And along with that comes a hierarchy of classical music values. What’s most important, according to this hierarchy, is the music, Performers are only important because they serve this music. Or, to put this way it’s most often put, the job of a performer is to realize the composer’s intentions. And the most important thing about these masterworks is their structure—defined purely in musical terms, as an arrangement of musical ideas, not (God forbid!) as anything so cheap as a narrative, or a parade of emotional states.

Because of all these profound and important things, classical music—according to this way of thinking about it—has to be played with great seriousness. It also follows that greatly serious performances have to be better than exuberant ones.

This way of thinking plainly values one kind of intelligence more than any other. It values what I might call “idea intelligence,” placing it far above emotional or practical intelligence. And it values mind intelligence more than body intelligence. Which gives us one more reason why classical music is having trouble. The classical music world accepts—and in fact tries to enforce—a set of values that’s very far from what most intelligent people believe today. And if you try to change things then you’re breaking the pantomime of profundity, and therefore you’re dumbing the music down.


And now some concluding remarks. I myself am a creature of the old classical music world. Clearly I have trouble with its values. But I don’t have trouble with the music, which I love just about to distraction. I love the way classical music can massage the passing of time, the way it can create patterns of ebb and flow, the way a classical work is built from many parts, each with its own evolving role to play, and its own relationship, always changing, with all the other parts. Or, to be more simple about it, the way classical music can create a flow that develops over time. No other kind of music works quite this way, and to lose it would be an incalculable loss.

Finally, I’m not the only one who’s challenging the way the classical music world thinks and operates. I owe a lot to many people. Among them are the so-called “new musicologists,” who’ve brought current cultural thinking—feminism, gender theory, and much more, including a sharp understanding of popular culture—into the study of classical music. They’ve also attacked, much more sharply than I’d know how to do, the idea that classical masterworks exist, in the last analysis, as autonomous musical structures, speaking only a musical language, which in its own final analysis has nothing to do with the outside world.

And then there’s Christopher Small, whom I hope to meet one day, who in three unforgettable books (Music of the Common Tongue, Musicking, and Music, Society, Education) has written the best criticism I’ve ever seen of classical music’s current idea of seriousness. which he contrasts it very joyfully both with other musical cultures, and with the way the music we now call classical functioned in the past.

I admire Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, who’s a far more lively writer than I am, and can evoke a vision of classical music’s future that seems a lot more vivid than mine,

My book, however, stands apart from everything I’ve cited here in one important way. I’m the only one, as far as I know, who tries to weave conceptual considerations into more practical discussions of how the classical music business works. So I hope my book might be especially useful for everyone who wants to figure out what to do about the classical music crisis.

Which leads me to the final group of people I’m indebted to—all the people in the classical music world who want change, and are starting to make changes happen. They’re everywhere, honeycombed throughout the classical music world. Soon enough we’ll see a tipping point, and then these people will emerge as the dominant force in classical music. And then we’ll really see some changes.

To all these people—with gratitude for everything they do, for everything they’ve taught me, and for all the encouragement they’ve given me—this book is dedicated.

Posted by gsandow on May 14, 2006 2:52 AM


Site Meter