At the end of my last post, I asked why we’re not finding ways to reach the audience of people just like us, who don’t happen to listen to classical music. And why, instead, we put so much effort into education and outreach (often to people not like us).
My answer was that we don’t believe we can do it. Or at least we’re acting that way. We’re acting as if we don’t think there’s an audience we could reach in direct and passionate ways. Which, in my view, condemns classical music to death, for reasons you can read in that previous post.
But let me press further. Why wouldn’t we believe a new audience is out there, eager for us to talk to it simply, directly, and personally?
Because we believe too much in classical music education. Or, more specifically, we believe that classical music is complex, and that therefore no one can properly understand it, without being specially educated. And even that no one even will like it, even in the simplest way, until they’ve been taught how to do that.
Which seems tragic to me. Do we have that little faith in our music? Or in the people we share our world with? This belief — that, without special education, we can’t spread a love of classical music — seems both insecure and arrogant. One one hand, we’re apologizing for classical music. “Oh, of course you don’t listen to it. It’s so complicated!” But flip the coin over, and we’re just about saying, “Hah! Of course you don’t listen to classical music. It’s way beyond you. But we know all about it, and we’re going to teach you.”
Which is just one step away from saying, “We’re better than you.” Especially when it’s combined with ludicrous beliefs about the culture the people we’re trying to reach already have (especially their musical culture) — that it’s shallow, empty, inhuman, and factory-produced, leaving no room for thought or reflection.
But then that’s a big question. I fear I’ve been hauling off in replies to comments here, about misconceptions of pop music. I should do a full post about that. So let me just say that the imbalance here is quite striking. “We know something you don’t,” we say to the people we hope will be in our audience, “and what you know [talking now of their musical culture] is worthless.” Seems like a guaranteed road to failure.
Or else we patronize them — and patronize classical music, too — with facile comparisons between classical music and pop (“Rachmaninoff was the Barry Manilow of his time”), designed to show that classical music really isn’t all that complex. But that’s stupid. Classical music, since it’s great art, of course is complex, and our wished-for audience, since it’s literate in current pop culture, of course is easy with complex ambiguities. So bring on classical music’s depth!
Our problem in part comes because we think that classical music’s depth, in the end, lies in structural detail. So if you can’t follow sonata form, you haven’t understood classical music. Which again gives us something to hold over our fellow human beings, and puts up still more barriers between them and us. “We won’t let you into the concert hall until you’ve passed the sonata form quiz.” We don’t say that explicitly. We might not even think it. But it’s the impression we’re going to create.
And in the end what we do here is sell short our brothers and sisters, by blocking the path for them to develop their own take on our art. It’s not that there aren’t things they’d be happy to know, once they were interested. It’s not like anyone spontaneously can pick up everything there is to know.
But that people can love — and love deeply — an art they don’t know in detail is something we shouldn’t sell short. How much does the current classical audience know? I wouldn’t overestimate the depth of their knowledge. I’ve met some audience members — long-time subscribers — in focus groups, who couldn’t identify, by sound, the instruments of the orchestra. But that didn’t mean they don’t love the music.
And the path, I’d think, to the largest possible well-informed audience would be to have the largest possible audience. I learned that late in the ’80s, when I defected from classical music to pop, becoming a pop music critic. One of the first things I learned about the pop music world was that, in a huge market, even the fringes are huge. So edgy, dissonant, complex pop music — music that isn’t likely to get on the pop charts, because in fact it’s not popular — still might have a larger audience than classical music does, simply because the overall market it’s part of is so tremendously huge.
At the very bottom of all this, I fear, is a sense of cultural superiority. Classical music is great art, we think. No dispute about that. (Well, to be precise, some of it is great art. Some, in its time, was designed simply as entertainment. But that’s another discussion.)
But is classical music crucially great? Will our civilization collapse without it? Should everyone be required — in school — to learn it?
That’s the sort of missionary zeal that, I think, underlies a great deal of classical music outreach. And when we approach minority communities, I fear the word “missionary” might not be too strong, with specific historical reference to white missionaries going to places like Africa, to convert the “natives.”
Yes, those are strong words. And in our own African-American communities, there is (or at least was) a strong classical music tradition. (See, for instance, my friend Elaine Mack’s powerful book, Black Classical Musicians in Philadelphia: Oral Histories Covering Four Generations).
But American communities — white communities, too — have music of their own. I’ve blogged earlier about an effort by Carnegie Hall and the Berlin Philharmonic, which took them to Harlem, to teach young African-American kids to dance to Le sacre du printemps. Some observers from the classical music world were so moved when this happened that they cried.
And perhaps the event was quite wonderful. But was there, reflected anywhere in it, an understanding that these black kids have a musical culture of their own, as do kids from all kinds of New York communities? Carnegie Hall brings Stravinsky to the black community, but would its staff bring people from the black community to Carnegie Hall, to teach hiphop record production? Would Carnegie Hall’s staff go salsa dancing?
Somehow — despite the innocent good intentions involved — the cultural reach goes only one way. That’s a disaster for us, I think. Our world is multicultural. White people are no longer (or shortly won’t be) a majority. Can we really keep pushing — exclusively — an art form whose participants, audience, and tradition is almost entirely white? (And, when we look at the audience, old and well-off, as well?) Shouldn’t we be multicultural, too?
People in classical music rave about El Sistema, because it’s teaching classical music to children in communities all over Venezuela. But we don’t celebrate hiphop, an artform developed in our own troubled communities, by young people themselves. Which I’d think was a higher achievement — creating something entirely new, on your own — than learning an established art, especially when what you created went on to sweep across the whole world.
And if your answer is that classical music is universal art, the property and heritage of all humankind, well, of course that’s true. And everyone should have access to it. But is it the only universal (or crucially important) musical art? Can it really be — in an age when finally we’re shedding the heritage of white colonialism — that the only universal musical art is white people’s art? Shame on us, if we think that.
I know that I’m writing strong words, here. And maybe I’ve strayed far from my starting point. In my own missionary zeal, am I unfairly condemning those who — with only the best of intentions — passionately support classical music education and outreach?
I don’t mean to do that. But I do think some very large issues are implied in our innocent passion for bringing classical music to a wider world, by outreach and education. We’re saying that our music has an importance that other music might not have. And that might, to use milder language than I’ve just used, be culturally insensitive, even to well-off white people, whose musical culture these days isn’t classical.
Whereas if we just went out and sold what we’ve got — sold it, as I’ve said in another post, on the highest possible terms, as an expression of what’s in our deepest, most passionate core…well, then other people could take it or leave it, just as all of us take or leave the cultural choices we have.
But I think lots of people would take it. And by not approaching them this way, we’re selling them short. Not to mention ourselves.
Jon Silpayamanant says
Now pretty much all of that I can agree with, Greg–I just played an event with my Klezmer band yesterday–it was a “Cultural Competancy Symposium” for first year Medical students to help them understand that sometimes the barriers to health care can be simply different cultural understandings.
The speaker right before our performance brought up several examples, many of which he’d experienced in the field, of Health care professionals who have had severe misunderstandings with different cultural populations in the US–an example being that by simply telling someone, say, from an Alaskan Inuit population that “if you don’t brush your teeth, you are going to get cavities” that doesn’t mean you will curse them with bad health if the action isn’t followed. In some cases, he talked about some health care professionals adopting ways of mixing traditional medicines with Western medicines to help increase the probability that the medical care will be accepted.
This “missionary” zeal is just as problematic in its own way, but I rarely see many outreach and education focusing on meeting the target population on its own terms or finding ways of making it a dialogue or an actual cultural exchange. One of the things that really stuck out in my mind af the speaker’s talk (and sorry–I can’t for the life of me remember his name or I’d post that rather than “the speaker”) is the idea of having minorities from different cultural groups on the medical boards to help the medical professionals understand some of the barriers to treatment and differences between the target group and doctors and dentists–how neat would it be if Orchestra boards did this? It could be a foothold into finding ways and programs to can actually target the audience out there rather than the audience that could possibly be if we convert enough young ones to the cause!
Bryan Townsend says
I agree with a lot of what you are saying and with what Jon is saying. But this passage in your post gave me pause:
“And if your answer is that classical music is universal art, the property and heritage of all humankind, well, of course that’s true. And everyone should have access to it. But is it the only universal (or crucially important) musical art? Can it really be — in an age when finally we’re shedding the heritage of white colonialism — that the only universal musical art is white people’s art? Shame on us, if we think that.”
I think this is putting up a straw man so that you can knock it down with post-colonial ideology. And I’m pretty sure this is not the way to look at things. Classical music is not a universal art, it is not the ‘property’ of humankind. In the sense most often used, classical music is one of many products of European culture, appreciated, to some extent, in many other places in the world as well. Everyone does have access to it–pretty much everything is on YouTube. There are no universal musical arts. Dragging in white colonialism (as if only whites colonized!) is the kind of polarity that will just lead to politicizing questions that are really aesthetic, not political.
Greg, what leads you to be an advocate for classical music specifically, as I assume you are?
Greg Sandow says
Brief answer: I think many people act as if what I were straw-manning here were true. So I don’t think it’s a straw man. These people might talk a broader game, but they’re advocating (just for instance) classical music education, not music education in any diverse, crosscultural sense. That amounts to saying that only one kind of music is important to teach about.
As for white colonialism, well, of course not only whites colonized. Witness Genghis Khan, or African slaveholders. But whites colonized on by far the largest scale. Unless, that is, you can name a non-white people who took over North America, South America, Africa, India, Australia, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, while reducing China to something like a puppet government, operating in western interests. So white colonialism has a special role in world history, and leaves a particularly tricky heritage, much of it buried far below the surface of consciousness. I don’t think that makes white people worse than non-white people. I’m sympathetic to Doris Lessing’s story (in one of her science fiction novels), of a future in which the white race is put on trial for its sins, but the trial (held in public in a huge stadium) more or less dissipates when the sins of non-white people begin to be discussed. But still, even if we shouldn’t assign any special moral guilt to white people, the remnants of white colonialism have sometimes virulent force.
Why am I an advocate for classical music? Because I love it, and know that it has unique characteristics, and has a unique role in world culture (though no more unique than other kinds of music). And because it’s been eclipsed, in our present culture. Even educated, artistic people no longer know it, the way they know literature, painting, poetry, the other arts. Which then leads me to be strongly critical of the way classical music people tend to think about classical music, to privilege it, at least in their minds, and often in their advocacy, over other kinds of music. Seems to be that’s one reason why it’s been eclipsed. But that’s a larger question I won’t go into right now.
I’ll shortly have a post on diversity, which will look at the “colonialism” issue from a much more everyday, common-sense point of view.
I’ve worked on other occasions to define classical music, and a key part of that definition is that classical music (or, more precisely, the music we now call classical, since neither the term nor the concept existed before 1800 or so) is the musical heritage of the west. Which is no small or unimportant thing, as long as it’s part of a balanced cultural diet.
Annabelle Clippinger says
Here you indict well-intentioned white folks, working hard to get the word out there about classical music to under-served audiences. I have been wondering the same thing myself. I have found that asking some of the kinds of questions you ask is extremely offensive to others who feel that a diverse audience for classical music should include lots of interested African Americans.
Classical music is a taste. It can be developed . The best way to be passionate about it is to play it. Therefore, I make the claim that young people who play the music are the best targets for outreach. Perhaps diversification of classical audiences (aside from Asian enthusiasm for the art) is about making the audience younger.
My work as the Chair of the New Leadership Board of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and Director of PITT ARTS is really about bringing a young (middle and high school of youth orchestra musicians) and young adults (college age– very few musicians) to Heinz Hall to enjoy the music of the PSO.
I have found that the European arts generally are attractive to the Europeans and Euro-Americans, except perhaps opera which has had so many great and distinguished African American artists. But the audience for it is not what I would call diverse.
To me, classical music is sometimes like a loud rock concert. Often it is deeply complex and rewarding to listen to. One issue that occurs to me about popular music is that one never has to be trained or learn to listen to it. One is already immersed in it.
Any place where learning is actively happening is a place to learn about classical music. Schools and universities are the key areas for this. I do feel the fact that classical music places more difficult demands than popular music upon the listener/ audience ultimately makes classical more interesting, but also necessitates some learning to make it that much more rewarding. It’s likes someone looking at an abstract painting and saying, ” I can do that” which of course is far from the point of looking. But here, looking is not enough,and this kind of visual art requires a context to really understand it.
Classical music is certainly enjoyable in its own right, but also perhaps precisely because of the learning involved.
Greg Sandow says
Hi, Annabelle. So good to see another old and treasured friend commenting here.
I’m going to address diversity in classical music in a blog post (or at least address some aspects of that troubling question). But I do strongly agree about the need for a younger audience. And my guess is that a younger audience might well be more diverse, because among younger people, some of the traditional racial and ethnic divisions are less strong than they were for past generations. I remember reading a study some years ago that showed that younger white and black people tended to watch the same TV shows, as opposed to older white and black people, whose tastes differed. Hiphop, the signature music (over the past couple of decades) for younger people was the only style that — when I was a pop music critic (and first met you, Annabelle!) — routinely attracted a racially mixed audience. Prince did, too, but otherwise, as a rule, black artists drew a black audience, and white artists a white one.
Among college students now, I think it’s pretty common to take in a diverse rainbow of art and entertainment. So it might seem perfectly natural for black college students to go to classical concerts, as long as other younger people were going. I don’t mean to minimize the racial and ethnic divides that still exist, but I do think there’s some change.
Bryan Townsend says
If there is nothing that makes classical music unique, then it is certainly not going to be “privileged” (which is a bit of a buzz-word). Can you really think of no characteristics that classical music has that no other music has, at least to the same extent? It feels like you want to place the blame for the decline of classical music on classical music people. They are just too condescending or something. I think my point was that people who have a good understanding of classical music just aren’t making those claims, which is why I wanted to get them out of the way. Classical music is not the easiest thing to appreciate or understand. I happen to think it is worth the trouble, but I certainly don’t think anyone should be forced to appreciate it!
As far as a balanced cultural diet goes, I had an interesting experience of that. Pianist Stephen Prutsman has a unique concert program that sandwiches many musical genres from Rameau to Debussy to gospel to Latin ballad between preludes and fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. I think it demonstrates very powerfully that some music that we call ‘classical’ has qualities unmatched by any other music. But I’m also pretty sure that Stephen doesn’t see it that way!
Greg Sandow says
I thought I said, in so many words, in plain English, that classical music had unique characteristics. In my last reply to you, that is. The unique characteristics might be these:
— classical pieces (long ones, anyway) evolve over time, the way novels and films do. The evolution is planned by the composer who created the pieces. So I’d imagine anyone who gets absorbed in other arts that evolve over time is missing something by not knowing the music that does that.
— many contemporary classical pieces (though not those normally heard in the concert hall) evolve in a different way: the composer sets a process in motion, which works itself out over time, though the details may be different every time the piece is done. Examples are Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room and Music on a Long Thin Wire, many pieces by Pauline Oliveros that are performed (according to instructions she gives) by the audience, Gavin Bryars’ Jesus Love Never Failed Me Yet, and (most famously) Terry Riley’s In C. This procedure, too, is pretty much unique to classical music, at least in western culture
— the sound of classical music is unique. The instruments, for instance: strings, woodwinds. And (though again this isn’t part of the experience of most classical music lovers) the dissonant harmony of the 20th century. There are atonal pop songs, and certainly a lot of atonal jazz, but the sound of a Schoenberg or Webern or Boulez or Stockhausen piece is pretty much unique to classical music.
— classical counterpoint is pretty much unique. In pop and jazz, you’ll have many voices working together, but they’re not wrought in the same way that classical counterpoint is.
— classical music gives cultural/emotional/visceral expression to all kinds of cultures and eras from Europe’s past. I was listening recently, over and over, to Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, and found myself hearing (as at least I imagined) the sound and culture of Paris before World War II. Obviously we don’t have pop music or jazz from the Renaissance, from the French court in Versailles, from 19th century Italy, from 18th or 19th or early 20th century Vienna.
That might be the beginning of a list.
As for blame for the decline of classical music, I put it on a phenomenon, rather than on people. The phenomenon is that our larger culture changed and evolved, especially since the 1960s, and classical music didn’t. Oh, of course (as a contemporary music specialist) I can point to things that developed and changed. But the face classical music presented to the world — and the cultural content of the repertoire — didn’t change. You can read Mark Harris’s striking book, Pictures at a Revolution, to see how Hollywood movies changed almost beyond recognition in the ’60s, thanks to the influence of European art films and ’60s culture. Nothing similar happened to classical music.
Classical music people remain, in so many cases, blind to this development, and keep insisting that classical music can continue to be what it’s been in the past, even though nothing else in our culture is (and certainly not the other high arts). For that I do blame them. But I also have a lot of sympathy, because people who deeply love classical music in its traditional forms have been left high and dry by cultural change. Often they don’t like what they see in the larger culture. That they don’t really know much about what they don’t like would be a separate question, but I sympathize with their not liking it. This leads to something I’ve often heard said, and occasionally seen written, that one valuable thing about classical music in our time is that it serves as a refuge. This isn’t much of a recipe for survival, but, again, I do sympathize with the people who feel that way.
As for classical music being intrinsically hard to understand, I don’t think that’s true. It’s a matter of perspective. Many kinds of music have depths that normal listeners don’t hear. Jazz, rock, blues, hiphop, gospel music, Latin music country music — professionals and connoisseurs hear things in all those genres (or collections of genres; Latin music is hardly one unified style) that the average fan has no notion of. Likewise classical music. You can like it on all kinds of levels. I’ve seen someone with sophisticated minds jump from alternative rock to late Beethoven quartets without even stopping to take a deep breath. She already understood complex, layered music, and a late Beethoven quartet was manna from heaven for her. But many people in the loyal classical audience really don’t know much about what they hear, and let it wash over them, in the simplest way, with the greatest pleasure. The barriers to liking classical music, in my view, are cultural familiarity — whether the sound and feeling of the music makes sense to you, whether you like the social circumstances of the concert hall. Many people with sophisticated tastes in other musical genres find classical music too simple, too undemanding — something that comes as a shock to some classical music sophisticates, but is well worth thinking about. My nephew, a jazz musician, and a passionate improviser, finds classical music lacking because for the most part there isn’t any improvisation. He understands classical music perfectly well, has studied and played it, but finds it lacking in the musical quality that means the most to him.
As for the Stephen Prutsman recital being any way to encounter pop, I thought of a comparison. I mean no disrespect to Prutsman, or to his arrangements of Latin ballads and gospel music. But encountering those styles on a classical piano recital might well be a little like seeing bears ride bicycles in a circus or (as I’ve seen them) in an animal show. If that’s what you knew of bears, you might get the idea — seeing them do something not at all natural to them — that they weren’t physically very adept. But if you see them in their natural habitat — catching fish with their paws, let’s say — you’d see how deft and accomplished they are.
What anyone who wants to understand pop needs to do is to encounter it in its natural habitat. Which means understanding that habitat, which means hearing and understanding the music the way the people who like and understand it do. Which might be a tall order from someone who comes from classical music, and — in complete honesty, not meaning anything prejudicial to other music — is used to looking for accomplished harmony and counterpoint as one measure of what makes music valuable. It’s hard to shed a lifetime of one kind of perception, and start listening for something else.
But here I want to raise a larger question, Bryan. If I were a blogger who talked about Chinese history, or French cuisine, or quantum physics, I have a feeling you wouldn’t come on to my blog, and engage me in arguments about those subjects, if you had only a casual (and perhaps mistaken) knowledge about them. I think, since you’re an intelligent and sensitive person, that you’d understand that I knew more about these subjects than you did, and proceed very modestly if you wanted to question something I said. Just as I’d do if you, Bryan, were an expert on Guillaume de Machaut, and I wanted to discuss his music with out. Or as I actually did, back in my journalist days, when I interviewed the Emerson Quartet about a Beethoven cycle they were playing. I didn’t launch into a disquisition on my theories of Beethoven. I looked at those four marvelous people, understood that they’d been playing the quartets all their professional lives, and knew them in countless visceral and thought-out ways, far better than I’d ever know them, and I asked questions with great respect.
I’m not saying, Bryan, that my knowledge of pop music compares to the Emersons’ knowledge of Beethoven. But I do know something about it, and did work professionally in the field for a number of years, and have read some of the key books on it. And then I observe that many people in classical music launch into discussions of pop, expressing strong opinions, and making factual assertions, without actually knowing much at all — if anything — about the subject. I can cite both published and anecdotal examples, but two notable published ones would be the Allan Bloom book you mentioned, The Closing of the American Mind, and Julian Johnson’s Who Needs Classical Music? Here we have two educated and cultured academics saying things about pop music that are factually incorrect, about on the level of saying that the sky is green. Something (sorry to repeat myself) that they’d never do if the subject was monetary policy, or the culture of France in the 17th century, or the anatomy of frogs, or the characteristics of neutrinos.
I think this is because they’re prejudiced against pop music — or, more strongly, because they have an emotional revulsion to it so strong that they lose all capacity for rational discourse. Which is a shame on many levels. And is a disaster, to the extent that their revulsion, lack of knowledge, and readiness to make ignorant assertions spreads into classical music advocacy. We’re not going to get anywhere talking like idiots about the music the people we’re trying to reach already like. We’ll simply convince these people that classical music must be old-fashioned nonsense, because the people who talk about it say nonsensical things.
Which, I guess, is why I’ve spent so much time typing these long comments on my blog, when sometimes I think I have more pressing things to do. So let me leave the subject now, Bryan, with one request to you. There’s a huge literature on pop music — journalistic, scholarly, critical, historical, analytical, cultural. I’d like to see you comment on some of it, as you did on your blog about Allan Bloom. I’d recommend two possible starting points. One is Robert Walser’s book on heavy metal (you can find the exact title on Amazon, and of course order the book itself). Here you’ll find what happens when a superbly credentialed, classically trained musicologist who also happens to be a rock guitarist turns his scholarly apparatus on heavy metal. You’ll find detailed musical analyses, cultural commentary, detailed descriptions of things metal does that couldn’t happen in classical music, but which are wrought as carefully by metal musicians as classical musicians work on anything they do. You’ll get an idea of what metal sounds and feels like to those who know it from the inside.
And the other is one of the earliest classics of rock criticism, Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train. Where you’ll find as fine a mind at work as you’ll find in any writing about classical music, and you’ll see, perhaps, why rock expresses things in American culture that classical music, up to now, anyway, can’t touch.
But, with all respect — and I know you’re a sincere, caring, intelligent, sensitive man — I can’t debate these things with you if you won’t make some effort to learn things you don’t currently know about pop music. In much the same spirit as you’d hope at least a few pop music fans would make an effort to understand the music you love!
Jon Silpayamanant says
To be fair, Bryan, being a classical guitarist, has mentioned several times at his blog that he’s played in pop and rock bands as a bass guitarist or guitarist. I think he may have a healthy knowledge of what it takes to at least be that kind of musician, Greg.
And I don’t think that being a musician or someone who understands the music from either side necessitates being an advocate for or even sympathetic to the music. For example, I’ve been playing shows with and on bills with local and regional pop musicians of all kinds of stripes (even shared a bill with an ICP inspired group once) with one of my bands. We play several hundred covers as well as original tunes (some which I’ve co-written) and I can’t even begin to count how many hundreds of bands I’ve seen. While I’ve grown to appreciate and respect many of the musicians in the field locally and regionally (and through learning their music, nationally and internationally) I don’t particularly like the field or music any more than I did prior to my involvement in it.
“why rock expresses things in American culture that classical music, up to now, anyway, can’t touch”
See, that’s the thing–and I’m sure you’ll address some of this in your upcoming diversity post–but to me, since I feel just as much an outside to rock as I do to classical (or rather, the level of alienation is pretty much even as I mentioned in a comment to one of your other posts), and because I know plenty of folks who are ethnic Americans and feel the same way as I do, I don’t think rock expresses anything more about American culture than classical does. Or rather, it doesn’t express American culture as I’ve experienced it.
I think my friend and performance artist, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, siad it best in one of his performance piece texts (“The Republican Barbie”–excerpt from “El Mexorcist,”):
Bryan Townsend says
That was a very voluminous response to my brief comment! Greg, I very much have the feeling that we are talking past one another. Reading over your comment carefully, I have a pretty good idea where you are coming from. But I think you are jumping to conclusions about where I am coming from. You assume that I am a stiff-necked hardcore classical musician almost completely ignorant of popular music genres. The truth is that I came to music in 60s as a bass guitarist and electric guitarist and only after a few years discovered classical music. I think if you had a look at my blog you would see many posts talking about various kinds of music that are not classical. Here are some posts as examples. I think the first one in particular will give you some insight into the things that concern me and don’t concern me.
And yes, I know the Robert Walser book, but haven’t read it in over a decade. As a musicologist myself, I have not only read quite a bit of musicology on popular culture (some of which I am critical of) but I also listen to popular music for pleasure as one of the posts above reveals. What I find odd is that because I have been (and will be again!) critical of some–or a lot–of popular music, you assume that I am just ignorant of it! I’m also critical of a great deal of classical music, as well.
I left my comment because I wondered if you were not in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Perhaps that is not the case after all. And perhaps I am not an idiot with regard to popular music. Perhaps I just have a different critical theory than you do…
Ian Stewart says
As usual you raised so many really important points Greg, but I think some are perhaps over-stated. Firstly many of the people not from classical backgrounds will use classical music styles when they get the opportunity, for instance a great deal of computer games music is classical in style, played by huge symphony orchestras. Recently I did an orchestration for one of the world’s best selling computer games and there was a 65 piece symphony orchestra, made up of some of the best classical session players in London. The composer used all the synthesizers and computer software composers use to compose the music, then it was orchestrated. Before people complain that the composer should have done it himself, this is how Hollywood composers worked; and the original version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé.
The ethnic minority thing is not that important in my opinion because the white, middle-class establishment invariably get it wrong. In England, whenever there is council subsidised event we are invariably subjected to fourth rate Latin American music; in Latin America these imposters would be booed of the stage, but white English administrators seem to think that badly played ethnic music is somehow more real, more authentic. Also we have very few Latin Americans in England so why the obsession with this music.
Often white musicians will go to Africa to study African drumming, however African drummers, as far as I know, do not come to Scotland to learn the correct way to beat a retreat. Yet Scottish side drumming is probably the most sophisticated hand to hand drumming the world has ever seen.
Another problem, as mentioned in the post, is that not all classical music is good. Yet somehow I think some classical composers, who are not up to standard, can get away with their not-very-good-works because classical music gives it a putative quality that may not be inherent in the work itself.
However there is a huge move towards acoustic music in England and classical music could be part of that if it lost it’s snobbery. It seems to me it is the composers and administrators who are the problem. A friend of mine, who has earned a very good living writing production music, knows one such administrator. When they went to see Nico Muhly’s opera in London a few months ago the administrator said he wanted to walk out during the first interval. Apparently the popular staging and almost ambient synthesizer writing really got to him. He is quite happy with the crash and screech operas that he also goes to though.
Sometime ago there were several young singers on Myspace who described themselves as ‘classical, new-age, Celtic, ambient’. Would such works, ethereal melodies played almost entirely over a drone with synthesizer washes be accepted by the administrators I have described?
Ultimately I could not care less about race. In my opinion the best blues singers are Black Americans; the best reggae/dub people are Black Caribeans; the best country musicians are invariably white; some of the best classical pianists are Japanese; and so on. The last thing I want is an equal opportunies programme to get more white English people into ethnic music. Leave country blues to Son House and Big Bill Broonzy; leave dub to King Tubby. A few years ago I saw Bootsie Collins in London and the audience’s age ranged from 15 to late 70s. Europeans cannot play funk like that; and the fact the entire band was Black American did not have me worried about multi-culturalism. Bootsie’s band cannot be bettered, so leave it as it is – the last thing I want to see is a token white person in Bootsie Collins’s band!
John Montanari says
As a 30+ year classical broadcaster and long-time concert presenter, I can back Greg up on classical fans not necessarily understanding the music’s intricacies. I can’t tell you how often I’ve spoken to avid listeners who. for instance, couldn’t tell me the difference between a symphony and concerto. But they love the music, and feel that it’s a crucial part of their lives. I can also back Greg up on the point about classical fans and musicians looking down on pop. The person he’s describing was once me (for more, see http://bit.ly/sXUCLF).
It strikes me that the problem with many classical institutions, from the orchestras to the critics to the outreach folks, is that they use what might be called the Microsoft model (not a compliment), assuming that the end-user is interested in the same stuff the insiders are, and should have to get deeply into the minutiae in order to understand it. And if you can’t, it’s your fault. What classical music’s institutions need is more the Apple model, where the people who put the stuff out *really listen* to what their customers actually want, rather than what the insiders think they need, then make it easy and fun for the customers to use.
Greg Sandow says
John, sorry this is showing up late. Somehow it got into the blog’s spam comment folder, where it certainly didn’t belong! Just found it there today. I apologize for the delay. And of course I love what you said.
Alexandra Ivanoff says
ISTANBUL – I thought I might give you a perspective from the old Asia Minor, the old Constantinople, now Istanbul in modern Turkey. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Republic of Turkey in 1923 from the crumbling remains of 700 years of the Ottoman Empire, one of the things he did, in his long list of social reforms, was to invite Paul Hindemith and others from Europe to come and set up a State Conservatory, State Opera, and a State Symphony system. Atatürk said many times that the integration of Western “polyphonic” (a term which distinguished it from the Turkish classical monophonic music tradition) into Turks’ consciousness was not only a way to be considered Western, but he considered Western classical music “the mark of a civilized society.”
This was the first official mandate; in fact, during the 1700s and 1800s, many performers, composers, and ensembles from the major European capitals had been invited by generations of sultans, to not only visit, but live here in order to tackle the big task of transferring Turkish music into Western notation and creating their own musical legacies as well. Franz Liszt performed here in 1847 and was invited to live in Turkey for a few years, where he wrote several compositions.
Now, in 2011, Western classical music, Turkish classical music, all forms of pop music, world music, jazz, and alternative fusions exist in equal status to each other, and are enjoyed by all ages, backgrounds, and educational levels. Western classical music, as a result of a country’s leader’s philosophy, has a position of respect and prominence in a nation of 72 million people. There is so much going on here in Istanbul’s music scene, it’s truly difficult to attend everything, much less cover it all journalistically.
I’ve been living in Istanbul for almost five years, where I write regularly for Time Out magazine and Today’s Zaman newspaper as a music critic. The latter, by the way, is an Islamic-owned publication; I perceive my position there as the face of the West, espousing a Western standard to performance, and an important educational voice, all of which I take seriously. I only mention this because it’s connected to that belief system that was implanted in 1923 that “polyphonic” music was just a good as what had existed for thousands of years in the East. Now they are in balance in this part of the world.
Greg Sandow says
Nice to hear from you, after many years!
And so interesting to read what you wrote. I was in Tunisia a couple of years ago, where both western classical music and traditional Tunisian music were taught in schools. (Hmm — fascinating to notice my use of two words here, “classical” and “traditional.” Wish it had come naturally to use the same word for both traditions, since they both require learning and discipline, and take students beyond the pop music normally heard on Tunisian radio.)
Anyhow, the result, as far as I and others could see, after going to performances, was vibrant Tunisian music, played and sung by people in their 20s, and very dutiful western classics. I’m not going to put a value judgment on this, or try to explain it. But there it was. (The Tunisian music performances, by the way, were happily praised by Tunisian experts, praised with real enthusiasm, which encourages me to believe that it’s not just my naivete that makes me think they were so good.)
Jon Silpayamanant says
Greg, my wife and I had a similar discussion (regarding the Tunisian classical vs Tunisian traditional music) with regards to language. I have so many friends who were ‘classisicists’ in language (meaning they studied Ancient Greek or Latin) and I have always found it so interesting that Sanskrit and ‘classical’ Chinese never got included within those discussions of language.
So much of that has to do with how we, in the West, describe language and acceptable ‘serious’ topics of study regarding languages and how Greek and Latin are the default topics rather than, say, the Sanskrit or Chinese (or Old Persian or Babylonian). “Classical” has so many Western biased connotations for any field that any culture that doesn’t ‘count’ as privileged Western units of study almost invariably never get to have that adjectival description applied to the language (or any other field). I think it’s sad that we can’t do that for non-Western fields!
Jeffrey Biegel says
Because there are so many musicians, teachers, performers, recording artists, composers, arrangers, audiences, it makes it difficult to say your points exist all around the world. I agree with you, generically, however, there is music to suit every person’s taste, of any age, composer or performer or listener.
From my own personal heart and soul, as a re-creator of music and creator of my own music and arrangements, what I have opened myself up to, as a ‘classically’ trained musician, is to perform, record, compose, commission music which has its roots in traditional styles–but takes that to a new level. Case in point: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Here is a composer, who was a trumpeter and violinist, trained in the 20th century school of composition. Ellen admits her musical inspiration comes from far and wide, and, although her earliest compositions seem influenced by what was happening in 20th century concert hall repertoire, at the age of 72, she is now what I consider, a composer with true crossover style. Her most recent work, composed for me, “Shadows”, is indeed a work of shadows–musically, ethnically, culturally etc. Ellen juxtaposes a drum set on stage with the piano, giving a quasi rock sound to the traditional 20th century symphonic timbre. Add to this a klezmer clarinet in the third movement, or a Cajun two-step beat with blues in the second movement, and layered jazzy polytonal harmonies in the first movement, and you have the quintessential 21st century sound for the concert hall. Am I playing new music that sounds like Shostakovich? Or like Bartok? Or Gershwin? Is the simple two note theme in the opening like what Schubert accomplishes in the haunting c-sharp minor section of his ‘Impromptu in A-flat’ for piano? It is all of the above and none of the above, because it is purely Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Every composer is a blending of everything that came before them. How does all of this translate to Greg’s article? Simply put, without trying to make classical (I still deplore that generic term which is used to imply 300 years of ‘serious’ music–and I deplore ‘serious’ too, because it should all be entertaining) music ‘fit’ today’s society and today’s young listeners, the styles can be fused to create something accessible and inviting to ears of all ages. One member of the Louisiana Philharmonic audience, after hearing the premiere of Ellen’s “Shadows” said, “I don’t like modern music, but I LOVE this piece!”.
The other dilemma is the fact that arts are always being cut from music education throughout society–but not everywhere. Again, speaking from the performer’s seat, I enjoy going into schools and meeting the next generation of our concert hall audiences, who will also be our cd recording buyers. I’ll play some works by Bach, Chopin, and the cadenza to Keith Emerson’s 1977 Piano Concerto–and then some of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. The versatility of the wide ranging repertoire brings me closer to the youngsters, and this makes them feel more at ease to take in the mixture of styles. My goal is to get young people ‘turned on’ to Bach’s music. How? By using Baroque improvisation, demonstrating two equal sections of a French Suite, and varying the embellishments. One young piano player was learning a work by Bach, and I said, ‘OK–now do whatever you want–add trills and mordents wherever you feel they belong’. It not only brought the young player closer to Bach’s style of music, it brought his peers closer to what he was doing, making the music sound fresh and alive–as pop music does for young and new listeners. For me, that is the key to this whole mystery of keeping ‘classical’ (oh, that word!) alive–to bring out its spontaneity and freshness without taking anything away from its respectful place in history.
Perhaps we need more pop composers who are classically trained to merge their pop and classical gifts to create new sounds and music for the mass audiences. Neil Sedaka, for one, has returned to his roots, and wrote a piano concerto recently. I have, with Mr. Sedaka’s permission and approval, added some quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenths and thirty-seconds to fill out some sections of the piano part, and plan to perform/record the piece as often as possible. The piece, ‘Manhattan Intermezzo’, embraces a pop melodic world, but also embraces the cultural diversity of New York. In the intervals, the harmonies, the rhythms, the dances, Mr. Sedaka brings out his love for a city, and also for the mixture of classical and popular styles. The musician, Sting, is also a musician of unique gifts, very serious in his appreciation and writing of music of all styles. Isn’t there plenty of jazz in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto? Wasn’t Gershwin successful in this style, fusing jazz and melody? Was Gershwin inspired by Prokofiev? Yes indeed–but that’s another posting.
I would like to see composers from other countries merge their styles to write new sounds–jazz composers, classic composers, experts in percussion writing, etc. More of the direction Ellen Taaffe Zwilich is going. Keep ‘classical’ music on the human level, rather than a style of music one has to appreciate because it is ‘great’, or ‘serious’. It should all be fun and entertaining, emotionally moving and something you want to return to again and again.
Greg Sandow says
Bravo. The most natural thing in the world is for musical styles to interpenetrate. Because people do! Back in the ’50s, when rock & roll had exploded, and I was listening to it (as a kid) on the radio, there were mambo and cha-cha songs on the pop charts, of course mirroring the influx of Puerto Ricans coming to NY, and Cubans going back and forth. There was a Latin beat in “Little Darlin’,” one of the classic ’50s doowop songs. And “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” the first big hit by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, has jazz licks coming from the backup singers (I’ve read that they were big fans of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, a jazz singing trio of the time). And, in the sax solo, the damndest fusion of bebop and gutbucket R&B (with the bass player suddenly playing a jazz walking bass, something you don’t hear in the rest of the song, or, for that matter, in any other early rock & roll hit I can think of). The sax soloist, who knew the traditional black-music styles that went into rock & roll, had also hung out at Minton’s with the bebop crowd, and played their music.
In fact, the story of early rock & roll is a wild story of blending styles. I’m only using this as an example. The blending continues to our own time. Fascinating to read bios of world music stars who become famous at home playing a traditional instrument from their culture, and then, on the international scene, find it natural to collaborate with musicians from other cultures, including the west. Classical music seems a little slower (well, maybe a lot slower) to fuse with other styles, though it’s happening faster and faster now, and can’t possibly stop.
Ian Stewart says
Hi Jeffrey, Mike Oldfield has written what I think is a wonderful classical work ‘Music of the Spheres’. You can hear the provenance in his early rock works, such as Tubular Bells, and I think anyone who likes Oldfield will probably like this work.
Jeffrey Biegel says
I love his work–I remember ‘Tubular Bells’ like it was yesterday!
Jon Silpayamanant says
“I would like to see composers from other countries merge their styles to write new sounds–jazz composers, classic composers, experts in percussion writing, etc.”
Interestingly, there are already tons of composers doing just that–The New York Arabic Orchestra is constantly premiering works by their director and phenomenal multi-instrumentalist, Bassam Saba and by other Arabic composer like Simon Shaheen.
Most of the Traditional Chinese Orchestras (in the US) are playing new compositions being written by emerging Chinese and Chinese American composers to help build the repertoire for those ensembles.
The Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra is constantly performing new works, and in some cases developed programs where members would come and teach at middle schools and high schools about the instruments their members play (e.g. Santur, Oud) and then have them write pieces specifically for their ensemble with one of those instruments being the featured solo.
I think the traditional Western Orchestras, Opera and Ballet Companies are the exceptions to the rule (at least in the US and maybe North America) and I think that’s a sad thing.
Jeffrey Biegel says
Very interesting, Jon. Thanks for bringing this to everyone. It will be great to see more of this happen between cultures.
Jon Silpayamanant says
You’re welcome, Jeffrey, and in so many ways, I think that one of the reasons that all these non-Western Orchestras and ensembles do this is precisely because they view performing works written by their contemporaries and peers to be essential to the survival of their respective artforms–if only our Classical music field would view it that way!
Larry Murray says
Both Greg’s original columns on this subject and the return fire have been the sort of dialogue long overdue in the classical music world. Unfortunately it is often seen as a sort of heresy among the trustees and donors to the major orchestras. It is the very idea of “timeless music played flawlessly” that gets them to make large gifts to keep it going.
Part of these attitudes goes back to the 60’s and years of “Tchaikovsky’s Greatest Hits” being sold on television with highly educated, snooty British voice overs. Classical became just another status symbol. Subscribers also bought into the elitist aspects. Their leaving en masse when a contemporary piece is played inhibits such programming, and with it the new young audiences.
What caused me to quit the Boston Symphony was the trustees rejection of a major promotion with the Boston Phoenix because, “That’s the newspaper with “those” classifieds”.
Covering all the arts, from classical to rock, plus film, theatre, dance and nightlife in the clubs, the paper also had personal ads which deeply offended some of high and mighty. So the scheme was quickly rejected out of hand. It was better to let seats at Symphony Hall go empty. At the time I was working with Peter Gelb, who most people recognize as a promotional genius, and now heads the Metropolitan Opera. He too left the BSO because they couldn’t imagine a promotion person being worthy material for the position of Assistant Manager of the Orchestra.
It seems that problem has not gone away over time, the calcification and accumulated classism makes even having this discussion with the powers that control orchestras almost impossible.
The orchestra managers are reluctant to force a real conversation of their boards, and the chairmen are usually too concerned with raising money to think beyond the current fiscal year.
We will likely to see orchestras fail for the simple reason that their boards and managers are too set in their ways.
Jeffrey Biegel says
I love the music of the 1950s too. I hope you are correct–and there will be more fusion of musical styles. I should add, that Ellen Taaffe Zwilich presents djambes and crotales in her score of ‘Shadows’, which adds a particularly unique sound to the rest of the musical language. Gershwin added the gong to his ‘Concerto in F’, and I ca only imagine what he would have given the world of music had he lived longer. I just spoke with Keith Emerson, whose 1st Concerto I plan to record, and I am consistently lighting a torch in his soul to finish his 2nd Piano Concerto–which would be 35 years after his 1st. I would be very curious to see what he would write.