I think it’s time to emphasize solutions on my blog. I’ve made so many criticisms of the classical music world — justified criticisms, I don’t hesitate to say. And I love the theoretical discussions we get into, which I’m often (but, wonderfully, not at all always) the one to start.
But still it’s time to move forward, which doesn’t mean scrapping the critiques — which are needed; how else will classical music institutions ever change? — or the discussions. Alongside these things, though, we need solutions, things people are doing to change the ways that classical music functions. These are the things that will both create and ensure its future. Ensure that it has a future, because the old ways — for all the reasons I’m giving in my book — aren’t sustainable any more.
I’m encouraged to go in this directions by some of the feedback to the book I’m getting. Yesterday, for instance, I ran into an old friend from the business, someone I hadn’t seen for a while. And when I told him I was writing a book about the future of classical music, his first reaction was, “I hope it won’t be too depressing!”
That’s not an uncommon reaction. And some people — either in comments here, or in email to me — have said they found my chapter two riff depressing. (The shorter version of the riff is here.) No wonder they did — it’s about the evidence, statistical evidence, that shows how mainstream forms of classical music are declining.
But I need to balance the depressing news with good news, since there is good news, and since my book, after all is not called “Death.” It’s Rebirth.
So for my first “solutions” post I want to give a shout to my friend Erica Sipes, a pianist married to a singer who teaches at Virginia Tech. She and her husband gave a recital not long ago, and as Erica tells us in her blog, they created a new recital format. For instance:
We performed three Respighi songs, all of them describing scenes in nature. We felt that Respighi’s settings of all three are a bit like miniature tone poems…they evoke the scenes they describe and are filled with different colors and timbres. We decided that we wanted our performance to involve more of the audience’s senses so at the beginning of the first song, “Notte (Night),” with Tadd off to the side of the stage, we had sounds of crickets and other night sounds arise out of silence while the entire translation of the poem appeared on a screen behind the piano. This lasted about 30 seconds and then Tadd moved towards the piano and I began the piece while the sound effects faded out and a simple video of a blooming rose was projected on the screen.
Now, maybe this wouldn’t be to everybody’s taste. But for Erica and Tadd, and for their audience, it worked wonderfully:
The 30 seconds of sound effects preceding the start of each song was incredibly magical, even for me. It seems so rare in our culture that we have moments such as this. They were almost like moments of communal silence, even though they weren’t silent. They were moments of reflection and meditation and what was amazing to me and to many that I spoke to afterwards, was that there wasn’t a sense of discomfort or impatience in the audience as I had anticipated. As a performer, such an experience, was awesome and enabled me to perform without those harmful tapes that can so often ruin a performance. I felt in the moment and connected with Tadd and with the music – a fantastic experience.
But you should read Erica’s entire post, to see more about how this worked, and to see what else she and her husband did. My point isn’t that everyone should do recitals in just this way. It’s that Erica and Tadd found a way that worked for them, and which gave the recital a new kind of life, especially, as Erica tells me, for the students in the audience.
Because that’s what it’s about. All of us doing things in new ways of our own, so that classical music can be transformed, in ways that none of us can predict.
I want to add, by the way, that I know Erica mostly online. I’ve never met her, though we’ve talked on the phone. She’s one of many people I’ve come in contact with, people who like what I’m saying here (and elsewhere), and who turn out to be thinking many of the same things I think.
And, best of all, doing something about it. A perfect illustration of what I meant in my post about the top ten changes in classical music in the last decade, when at number one I put “A movement for classical music change.” That movement is real. Erica and so many other people I’ve gotten to know through my work online are living proof of that.
I’ll soon create another sidebar to my blog, in the “Resources” section to the right, titled “Solutions.” There I’ll post links to new things that people are doing, either things I find, or things you all tell me about.
Send me your solutions, so I can feature them here!
Kala Maxym says
Wow, Greg! What an inspiring post, and a NECESSARY move. We are all so used to complaining about things in this world: the lack of funds, the lack of objectivity, the lifestyle, the way people perceive us as classical musicians (especially singers… and especially sopranos!)… and the list goes on and on. I would like to think that The Opera Insider (when it’s up and running) will provide a solution to the lack of relationship and interaction that is currently non-existent between those performing and creating classical music (in our case, opera) and those who watch and listen to it. That relationship is key to keeping it alive, and we have thought of several, innovative ways to connect people through their mutual love of opera, extend the hand of friendship and support when and where it’s needed, and so many other things. Look forward to seeing more of your solutions.
John Oliver says
Young people are certainly used to what us older folk might call “multimedia.” The solution to classical music’s “problem” is simple: engage young people in your productions – young in age or young in spirit. And I don’t mean just the obsessed young classical musician. I mean people who live and breath the present. Many sensitive contemporary composers are available to be part of this solution. For classical music to move forward, it has to, well, move forward! The past century is unique in its capacity to archive and create “a canon” of “classical” music.” But the music of the past cannot, by itself, speak to the present and the future. Some sentiments, as expressed through music, speak to us over centuries. Others do not. The history of music is a story of change. It should come as no shock that humanity will continue to want from culture something that reflects the time and situation in which we live now. The core of the solution: creative people and programming that artistically mixes the past with the present in productions that enhance the meaning of the works presented by the use of processed image and sound.
Tristan Parker says
I don’t know what kind of reaction I’m going to get to this, but I’m honestly a little scared, even though what I’m suggesting seems to make perfect sense to me:
Treat classical music like any other kind of music.
If people play for the love of the game, they can play to an empty bar or a packed stadium equally well. When I played to an audience of 40, paying a five dollar cover, I was doing exactly what I do in my basement every day, but people were paying to see it!
So when I hear people talking about better ways to get endowments, and better ways to get people paying sixty dollars a pop for the privilege of hearing them, I honestly get a little offended.
If classical music groups can rise to that level of popularity again, more power to them. But if they can’t, the world won’t end. As long as there’s a demographic that loves the music, it won’t die.
Matthew Huber says
Greg, great post. Reminds me of the latter part of the course we took at ESM.
I don’t want to take anything away from Erica and her marvellous success in capturing her audience, but I still feel somewhere inside that a “regular” concert, if gone about the right way can attract a decent audience and good responses. Sure, with new music and obscure repertoire it’s certainly better to have something extra for the audience to hold on to. Whether it be visual arts, or whatever. And even with mainstream repertoire it probably works a treat. But i doubt most artists are ready to have projections on a screen while they play their Brahms sonatas…
However, I put on a concert a couple of years ago for charity (for head injuries from car accidents) and it was a huge success. I by no means am a local celebrity in my small town because, well, i’ve been in the States for many years but the turnout was 700 and the concert space was packed. Tickets were free and the audience were asked to give donations, of which a total of £6000 was raised on one night. Pretty good right?? My parents (both local GPs) handed out flyers to patients as they came through their doors, but apart from this no other advertising means were employed.
Now, a couple of things. Firstly it was for charity so whatever success there was cannot be projected as a sustainable business model, but local corporate sponsorship could have been courted to pay artist fees etc. and were I to do it again I would turn it in to a mini-series with a couple of major local sponsors. Secondly, one might say the audience came out of love for their doctors (my wonderful parents), but I for one would not go to another charity event that my doctor invited me to. Would you? Does this not show that a love for classical music must be inherently there?
Obviously the demographic of the audience was predominantly old, but despite this there were a number of young faces. I suppose there are stories like this amidst the impending doom of the industry. I’ve been invited back many times — would it now make any difference if I programmed some new-age visual/audio combo performance? Perhaps i’m just being naive.
Dustin Soiseth says
Devoting some space to solutions is a great idea. There are many musicians like Erica out in the world trying new things. Learning about their successes and failures will benefit us all.
Jeffrey Biegel says
Dead on–I agree with the post and the responses. So what if people try different things–some work, some don’t. If the great composers didn’t get out of the shell, we’d never have what we have. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and soul search. Some wonderful and innovative things may come about.
Paul Gambill says
Really love this discussion!
A few years ago I commissioned a work by J. Mark Scearce that set Toni Morrison’s poem The Dead of September 11, for solo mezzo, solo violin and orchestra. As you can imagine, it’s an intense work, and one that I was nervous to program. How do you attract and engage an audience with a concert that features the world premiere of a work about 9/11, and what else do you program on that concert?
My solution was to use gospel music on the first half that resonated with the sentiments in Morrison’s poem. We invited a narrator to read the poem in sections throughout the first half, interspersed with the gospel selections that featured several soloists and a gospel choir. In this way the audience was fully engaged with the text before hearing Mark’s work on the second half. Ultimately, the juxtaposition of the gospel selections on the first half against the classical intensity of the second half combined to create an unexpected synergy that carried the day.
There’s more detail about the process of creating this program, with a complete program listing and audio of the complete performance of Mark’s work, This Thread, on NewMusicBox here.
I think many people would consider this an extreme example of “alternative” programming: gospel with new classical music. But just the idea that this is viewed as unusual programming is exactly why we should be doing more out-of-the-box stuff. Let’s make it more normal to surprise our audiences and challenge their notion of what an orchestra (classical music) can be and the role it can have in their lives.
Can’t wait to hear from others about their solutions. And thanks, Greg, for making SOLUTIONS a regular sidebar.
a curious reader says
Here’s an interesting “solution” that is painfully obvious (collaboration of different arts): http://www.eternallightrequiem.com/video.htm premiered 2008 with orchestra, chorus, and ballet. i think that’s a great and unique take on a requiem that quite a few people can get excited for. another that I have to point out is Eric Whitacre’s “electronic opera” Paradise Lost: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWW78erAGHk
it may not be for some, but this is a true fusion of everything great in classical music, and the best in the electronic scene in my opinion — and i feel that these two genre’s have the best cross over ability. Electronic music, like classical, is largely based on the inner-workings of line, timbre and how those two relate to each other. after one listen, i was totally hooked and i really hope that the opera takes of — i think it has the potential to resonate with the younger generation easily. The theme and subject is great for the “untapped audience,” the music SOUNDS new, and Eric worked with an instantly recognizable name to do all the mixing/scratch work: Mr. Han from mega-band Linkin Park.
Casper Vogel says
What an important book in the making! I like the idea and proces.
Much of the thinking about how to (re)strenghten the importance, attractive power and meaning of classical music goes to the concert format, new ways to present the old content.
Fair enough, but I am focussed on where we encounter our experiences. The sociological angle is not without importance. I am inspired to tackle the presumed obvious, the unquestioned which goes without saying. To my mind there is much to say for weakening the mental biotope of classical music, firmly tied as it is to upper class, institutional power and yes places older generations take for granted: concert & recital halls, opera theatres.
I recently experienced the way New York’s Le Poisson Rouge mixes jazz and contemporary programming and as a result confuses, hopefully intrigues and seduces audiences.
When I directed the Utrecht Early Music Festival I was not surprised to recognize many a medieval & renaissance buff elsewhere at cutting edge contemporary concerts. They are models of a growing audience of people who find their own way through many channels, internet included. Why do not we more adapt to this phenomenon and how?
Another thought. With the Rotterdam Opera Days Festival we wanted not only to serve the more or less accustomed audience at the well known venues, how super the programming there is. Our signature opening production is on several spots on the shore of the Maas river, audience transported by boat from one scène to another.
Moreover we reached out to the city- at-large, re-introducing the age old format of private concerts, opera aria recitals, mini music theater and musical story telling from various cultures included. We match singers and people who are willing to invite their neighbours and friends. For the artists the festival guarantuees a very modest expense allowance, supplemented by audience donations afterwards. This brings starting professionals to studenthouses, living rooms, bread&breakfast, a home for the elderly, a civil center in a socially vulnarable quarter and many more spots, 50 in all. So much fun that well established soloists also collaborate on the same terms. This really is a very rewarding and exciting experience for everyone involved and one of the most succesful components of the Festival.
So let’s also focus on more of these kind of practices wherever.
– Bloemendaal, The Netherlands
I’m half tempted to link you to Virgil Fox doing the Gigue Fugue on YouTube, but I think your spamulator would catch the comment and flag it.
Keep in mind, that was the 70s …
You got it! My dad loved this guy. Watch him get a bunch of people clapping and grinning — and a couple doing impromtu polkas in the aisles to Bach!
He was brilliant as an organist — technically absolutely above reproach — but nonetheless he also caught flak for making it fun and connecting with people. His joy in the music is so infectious. I remember a comment from the back of one of his albums where he let loose on people who thought that Bach’s music was spare and should be unexpressive and as intellectually abstract as possible. He pretty much said flat out that attitudes like that were where the untalented took refuge.
Eric Barnhill says
I’m pleased to be part of a school that I think is implementing some fresh ideas. It’s a classical music magnet school for grades K-8 whose backbone is rigorous classical training. However one of the most popular offerings is the contemporary music ensemble “Face the Music” which must be one of the youngest such ensembles in the country with an average age of maybe 12? They play a hugely eclectic and fun repertoire and at a lot of cool spaces. I teach theory/musicianship there and for the composition segments they are encouraged to innovate and cross over. For example for one harmony assignment they had a “pop song project” where they transcribed one of their favorite pop songs for classical ensemble and had to follow classical rules of part writing etc. I got Beyonce, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Pantera among others. I think we’re teaching them that being in classical music can mean a lot of different things and that the old categories no longer constrain people so much. I think we’re also taking the standpoint that the classical artist of the future has composition, improvisation, adaptation and open-mindednesss in their skill set. And we get to infect them while they’re young, (The school is called the Special Music School at Kaufman Center.)
Holly Hickman says
This is the type of programming that I think is HOT for orchestras (see below). It honors the past, yet is also relevant to today’s culture. It’s unique, provides visual interest, is mixed genre, and just sounds fun. I would be there in a heartbeat. Kudos to Jason Weinberger and the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra.
Here is a link to a blog post by Scott W. Smith, the guy who produced the multimedia part, describing the event: http://screenwritingfromiowa.wordpress.com/2010/02/06/kelleys-blues-concert/
“Tonight the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra will perform a concert called ‘Kelley’s Blue’ that I had the opportunity to work on. Part of the concert will be a 40 minute section featuring the music of Duke Ellington’s ‘Three Black Kings’ and George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and visuals by artist Gary Kelley.
…My role in this concert came in the shooting and editing of 50 pieces of Kelley’s artwork that will be shown on a large screen for between 1,200 and 1,500 people.
…By the way, this won’t be your standard symphony concert tonight as conductor Jason Weinberger (a Santa Monica native who came to Cedar Falls via Yale & Peabody Conservatory) will also be incorporating music from William Grant Still and J Dilla (James Yancy), a Grammy-nominated record producer and one of the music industry’s most influential hip-hop artists.”
Terry Williams says
One of my interests is in creating “Tales and Music” – to bring the power of music to enhance the meaning and promote interest in story telling.
The Tale of the Sands is a beautiful traditional eastern story with a timeless message about challenges, overcoming obstacles, opportunities, and how to take advantage of what may be offered to us.
“The Tale of the Sands: A Tone Poem” is a rendering of this famous tale in a classically styled musical work of approximately 19 minutes in length. The music was composed and performed, and the story narrated by John J. Harvey. I would love to present this someday in a live performance. To listen to the work, visit: