The Composer vs. The Audience

The Composer vs. The Audience

Readers of these pages are already aware that Bernard Holland’s New York Times essay, “The Audience as Arbiter,” triggered quite a bit of commentary from the new music community, including a response we published earlier this month by Los Angeles-based composer William Kraft.

But the holidays have in no way diminished the debate these essays have unleashed. Scott Johnson’s view of the whole matter is 180 degrees away from Kraft’s, while Roger Rudenstein’s appraisal of things seems 180 away from Johnson’s without quite returning back to Kraft’s view—indeed, this is more of a spiral than a circle.

What are your thoughts about the audience’s responsibilities toward music of our time that is beyond the domain of the Billboard charts? What are your thoughts about composers’ responsibilities to an audience? Perhaps we can glean a New Year’s resolution or two herein.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

119 thoughts on “The Composer vs. The Audience

  1. Frank J. Oteri

    About a minute after I posted this, I wandered over to see what was brewing at Sequenza21, only to discover a discussion triggered but yet another Bernard Holland polemic against contemporary music:

    Listening to a collection of composers sharing inside jokes and private messages in music that reeked of contempt for the public made me get down on my knees and give thanks that an era so damaging to music was over. It didn’t drive an intelligent public away from classical music by itself, but it helped.

    One of the composers Holland singled out for his vitriol is the late Earle Brown whose birthday we honor today. The full article can be found here. Thoughts?

  2. dalgas

    Between the of weirdly twisted observations from Bernard Holland, Scott Johnson and Roger Rudenstein… Have you ever stood looking at a patch of ground so tangled with weeds, brambles and grasses, that it almost seemed impossible to know where to begin clearing the stuff out? Honestly, that’s what I feel reading these. There are elitist and dismissive digs of various stripes woven all through these articles; perhaps even a touch in William Kraft’s as well, but his field’s by far the cleanest of the four.

    To say more than that, I’ll leave to anyone who has enough spare hours in their day. Looking over this mess, I sure don’t.

    Steve Layton

  3. jchang4

    Is this another East/West thing? Holland of N.Y., Kraft of L.A…

    j/k, nobody needs to answer that. Just a curious observation.

  4. Colin Holter

    I can’t bring myself to say anything about Holland that doesn’t end with “and the horse he rode in on.” Earle Brown was the effing man. Holland makes a living validating the ignorant.

    Someday soon, he and all the groaning incontinents who suffer from his peculiar brand of geriatric dementia will be dead. If the Times replaces him at all, I hope it’s with someone whose vertebrae haven’t fused into the semicircle that keeps head permanently inside ass.

  5. Rob Deemer

    Since it’s the day after Christmas and I do have a rare chunk o’ time to reply, I’ll skip the quartet of articles that read like a composer’s equivalent of the McLaughlin Group to go directly to Frank’s questions about responsibility.

    From a personal standpoint, I don’t see any reason why an audience can’t be expected to come to a concert with an open mind about new works – especially when the marketing for that concert has been open and honest about the work being presented. While some audience members may exhibit biases for or against various forms of contemporary concert music, I feel most go willingly into that vast unknown, as long as they feel they have some chance of understanding the work at some level. Over the past few years, we’ve seen several instances of films dealing with crouching tigers, penguins, Al Gore, and Jesus whose popularity baffled the conventional wisdom about typical film audiences. Obviously, one may not find a one-to-one relationship between these films and the latest crunchy orchestra-with-electronics piece to hit the circuit, but the fact remains that as long as the work itself as well as the presenters remain honest with the audience, the chances are high that a connection may be made.

    The composer’s responsibilities are endless, but one obvious one seems to be to understand one’s audience – not write for or against, necessarily, but at least to understand them. A typical comment made about composers at the University is that they do not need an audience to survive; as a new winner of the tenure-track sweepstakes I’m not sure which University these comments are talking about, but I tend to associate those comments with the past. A composer today should feel comfortable in writing in whatever manner they please, but they would do well to understand what audience may or may not enjoy hearing their work within the context that it’s presented.

    Finally, it’s been a bit disheartening to see the lack of space that performers have received in this discussion. I find myself telling my students something to the effect of “write for the performers – if they enjoy your work, the audience will come along for the ride”. A work that creates dissension within the audience ranks has probably caused similar reactions within the ensemble performing it.

    Enough with the postulating…I’m going back to work with my new USB Turntable …can’t wait to get these LP’s onto my iPod.

  6. mdwcomposer

    One of Rob’s comments really resonated with me – that the performers can make such a crucial difference with an audience. If they’re really on board with a piece, convinced of its worth, they’ll go the extra mile in selling it.

    I sometimes think of composers as music wholesalers and performers as the retailers. It’s an inexact analogy, but does help my thinking in terms of how all the connecting threads – including to the audience – are made.

    Composers connecting to the audience through the performer – could be a useful concept

        — Mark Winges

  7. rtanaka

    Even in the commercial world, record contracts more often than not (I remember reading something like 80%+?) end up on flops. I’d be really really surprised if you could find any single person in the world who’d say that “pleasing an audience” was some easy, formulaic task. Does anybody really know what audiences want, or is the idea in itself a myth to begin with?

    I think Rob made a very good point about composers needing to make an effort to understand the audience. Not for or against, but a genuine attempt to reach out and say something to someone. Otherwise I don’t see much chance of the music surviving in the long run…

    Composers connecting to the audience through the performer – could be a useful concept.

    Or try performing your own music and take responsibility for your own ideas. Rebridging the composer/performer divide is often at the core of the philosophy of improvisation — what has been missing in most of classical music for nearly 200 years. Perhaps its time for a change.

  8. teresa

    let’s hear it for the band!
    It’s true– it’s not just about the writing… a performer has to like the work and be willing to “sell it” to the audience. After all, it’s all about connection –for everyone. If I am excited about a work, then I really want to share it with an audience, and I love playing it, again, and again… And, I find, that it’s not really about “new music” versus established norms at all. It’s about communicating with your audience… they are usually open to, and will often like, anything that you are passionate about. That is human nature, for better or worse.

  9. William Osborne

    I disagree with Frank’s assessment of the articles by Holland, Kraft, Johnson, and Rudenstein as somehow diametrically opposed (or moving in 180 degree directions, even if spiraling.) Though sometimes polemical, their arguments are often differentiated. They all explore valid points, and if read with an open mind, I think many overlapping views are apparent. In a word, they all reject aesthetic orthodoxy and superficiality.

    Johnson takes a rather defensive stance against Kraft because he seems to feel he is attacking fusions of pop and classical. Actually, that is not what Kraft was saying. His career shows that he has always been tolerant of musical explorations that incorporate vernacular languages. Modernism and postmodernism do not form a bi-polar dialectic. Kraft and Johnson share a similar goal. They reject reductive aesthetic ideologies that move us too far toward extreme ideologies that produce excessive elitism (Johnson and Holland) or excessive populism (Kraft.)

    Rudenstein also asks that we keep our minds open and avoid aesthetic zealotry. He summarizes the orthodoxy that some postmodern thought has created, when he writes, “It grew up in academia, where a wrong-headed type of thinking took root which used a shallow populism as the basis for restricting ideas.” Rudenstein is not rejecting the uses of vernaculars, but rather the shallow way they are often employed, and the way clarity of thought is clouded by orthodoxy and polemic. (We see this polemical thinking in the tasteless ad hominem attacks on Holland even in these pages.) Rudenstein describes a problem I think we often seen even here on NMB:

    “I think the intellectual level of the people who write for the arts has dropped substantially as a result of their using political criteria, although often quite progressive ones, in place of artistic criteria. It’s ridiculous to have to argue that Beethoven’s opus is not in the same universe with that of Fifty-Cent, yet that is an argument that one must have with most of them. No, friends, the classical music canon did not get replaced by Rock ‘n Roll. Really. Take my word for it. Nor does it co-exist with it in the realm of musical complexity, nuance and depth.”

    This is not a bi-polar argument, or a rejection of popular music or postmodernism. It is criticism of superficial, polarizing theoretical thought. Even though the four authors are involved with different styles, and even though they cross generational lines, all four share the same goal: a rejection of orthodoxy, and a plea for music that rises above aesthetic ideology.

    William Osborne

  10. Chris Becker

    “I’m going back to work with my new USB Turntable …can’t wait to get these LP’s onto my iPod.”

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!! ROB! Don’t DO it!!! PUT DOWN THE iPOD!!!

    I too compose with the performers in mind. The musicians I work with – many with strong backgrounds in rock and jazz – have been and continue to be crucial to my development as a composer. I also participate as a performer on laptop. One of the many things I’ve learned from my players is what communicates and what doesn’t from the bandstand to the audience. Being in the front line is different than tearing your hair out in the back row while looking at a score…That’s a glib description of what I’m trying to get at but I’ll leave it there for the moment.

    All of this may sound a bit pretentious as I do not command audiences the size of Lincoln Center or Steve Reich. However, I have performed in the past few years for audiences numbering several hundred to half a dozen. I am speaking from that range of experience.

  11. JimB

    Open minded audiences
    Here in the Boston area there is a significant audience that is looking for something different and challenging, and they go to — early music. I spent last Saturday night listening to Dufay with an audience several times the size I’ve ever seen for a contemporary music concert. Dufay presumably can’t be accused of pandering to contemporary tastes, but he has an audience most composers would envy. Is it simply because the blended voices are beautiful in a traditional sense? Maybe, but alt rock music isn’t beautiful in that way, yet it has an ever larger audience. If there’s an audience for alt rock and for Dufay, why isn’t there one for contemporary music? Sometimes I think it’s just because most people aren’t aware that it exists.

  12. pgblu

    They reject reductive aesthetic ideologies that move us too far toward extreme ideologies that produce excessive elitism (Johnson and Holland) or excessive populism (Kraft.)

    Who does actually promote these reductive aesthetic ideologies? A straw man? The boogeyman? The Sunshine candy man? I think Holland definitely promotes them by painting all composers with one or the other brush, though I wouldn’t dream of suggesting he’s the only one.

  13. William Osborne

    What promotes reductive aesthetic ideologies? That’s a very good question, Phil. Very thought provoking. I wish I had an answer. I think there are probably many very complex factors. It might help to look at a specific case most people could agree on, and try to figure out what happened. Would the latter days of serialism in the 70s be a good case study? Why were so many composers willing to join its ranks even though it was so totalizing, and so alienating to most audiences? How did such extreme insularity evolve? What role did cronyism play? Why were serialists so often the gatekeepers to professional advancement? Why was the aesthetic not more strongly challenged by colleagues, music critics, and performers? Is there something inherently insular about Manhattan – e.g. its character as an island megalopolis that views itself as apart from the rest of the country? What relationship did it have to America’s seeming tendencies toward fundamentalism in many different kinds of thought? What finally happened when the aesthetic collapsed? I don’t have time at the moment to even venture answers. I hope someone will offer some ideas.

    And by the way, I wouldn’t want to defend Holland’s article, and the second one is even more over the top. Among other things, I prefer to look at the positive sides of his arguments, and ignore the nonsense. Why let him rattle our chains? Are we really that insecure?

    William Osborne

  14. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Somewhere along the line through minimalism toward postmodernism there was a historical revision made. Or perhaps my tiny part of the world was very different. But I’m not so sure about that — I think this is the triumph of the anti-modernists who, having achieved victory, are busily rewriting history to their taste.

    William asks questions that don’t always follow — such as the assumption about alienated audiences, and whatever that might have to do with insularity. I won’t try to untangle those threads, but offer a thin alternative thought-slice.

    I came to music out of nowhere … none at home, no pop or jazz or classical, not even a radio for many years. Finally with a radio and record player came access to all sorts of music, heard as a young teenager without expectation or judgment. When I decided creating music was too compelling to resist, I played around for a few years and then jumped into the most thrilling of it all: modernism. There was no gatekeeper or insularity or career advancement pandering. It was just plain thrilling.

    With a group of other musicians, we took it to the streets in sidewalk and storefront concerts, mixing it up with old music and early American music, too. The doors of imagination were wide open, and though occasionally audiences were bewildered, they never reacted like the classic image of audiences hating all that nasty modernism.

    Admittedly, I did some work in New York, but my home and artistic work were done in the rusting industrial town of Trenton, New Jersey. Our concerts just weren’t events played to hostile audiences; even my performances in New York (back then with the likes of David van Tieghem) were done to responsive audiences.

    So when I had a chance to interview the ultimate anti-modernist, David del Tredici, I asked about that. He rejected the idea of modernism as forced upon him by gatekeepers. He called it sexy — who wouldn’t want to write that music? And then it was done, and he moved on.

    And now a new generation of performers is discovering that old stuff and playing it many times better than the first time around. I just heard a program on the BBC with Apartment House (still running on Hear and Now) that’s just a terrific re-imagining of some of these works.

    So aside from the pages of the Times and the nodding-off symphony subscribers, where are all these people that so hated the music? Or wasn’t it the music at all, but rather the presentation? The performers’ grasp? Or some deep lazy streak that our generation brought to listening that bankrupted musical education offered today in America?

    I’m just mystified. Like many composers, I’ve long left modernism behind … but still, the revisionists don’t recount a time that I remember at all. I remember a time exciting and sexy, not dreary, insular and hostile.

    Just Four Days Left

  15. gsandow

    I’m not going to comment on Roger’s various points, but I have to say I was surprised at the view he says I have:

    “Like the critic Greg Sandow, I believe that education should be an important part of any concert. We can no longer take it for granted that the audience will understand classical music much less modern music. We must find creative, non- pedantic ways of accomplishing this.”

    I don’t think concerts should be educational. In fact, I think too much emphasis on education — maybe any notable emphasis — will drive people away. People these days have very little trouble accepting complex music they don’t know much about. We’ve never had an audience (I’m especially thinking of younger people who like alternative rock and other forms of complicated pop music) that’s as open and curious as the audience we have now. If classical concerts are lively and interesting, absorbing and profound — but REALLY are these things, and, just as important, appear to be these things from the moment someone walks into the concert space — then we’ll get people interested. Which means we need to work on performance (is it really as strong and immediate and communicative as it ought to be? no matter whether the music is light or deeply serious) and presentation.

  16. rudenste

    I’m very happy that the various articles have generated a fairly lively discussion here. I have some comments on what’s been said, but first my apologies for misrepresenting Greg Sandow’s view on music education at concerts and, I believe, his actual view is correct. A pianist that I collaborate with performs in the way Greg mentions above and it is very effective in drawing people in. However, I do believe that we need more education around concerts…perhaps in the form of a pre concert event open to those interested. I did this with my opera Ulysses and got a very good response. You can’t count on the idea that people have the kind of musical and other knowledge required to appreciate classical music or that it is readily available to those seeking to increase their understanding of this kind of music.

    In regard to the other parts of this discussion, I’m happy Bernard Holland stirred things up, although, like William Osborne, I’m not enthused by his tone. However, as an audience member and critic I have had many similar experiences, where I had to sit through boring, unrewarding musical events, not necessarily modern, but usually so, wondering: why in the world were these pieces programmed in the first place? And, I know, from talking to music lovers, this is what they think about current classical music as a whole. As composers, we can make a million excuses and get mad and put the onus on them…but we know that something is wrong. On the other hand, where there is a music scene or movement there is always a coterie of people who will come out for it…whether it’s serialism, minimalism, bang on a canism, cutting edge rockism, or whatever. This gives us composers the idea that we have an audience that enjoys our music and that perception is true…within limits. And it may be that, given the commercialization of just about everything in our disintegrating society that’s the best we can hope for. But I’m hoping some of us can gain the ability to reach further and win the broad classical audience to our music and that the classical music audience can expand to win more listeners and concert goers. But that will take some of the measures I mentioned in my article and probably others that I haven’t thought of.

  17. Colin Holter

    There’s much hand-wringing going on here, and for good reason, but I wonder whether some of the formulations that have been expressed are really meaningful:

    But I’m hoping some of us can gain the ability to reach further and win the broad classical audience to our music . . .

    What would that require? Would I have to write music differently? Because the aesthetic criteria suggested by the goal of winning back the “broad classical music audience” just don’t mean shit to me. Sorry.

    Would composition have to be taught differently, as a means of attaining the aforementioned result (i.e., composers start to tailor their pieces for a lower common denominator)? Isn’t it already taught this way, though, most places?

    Dennis writes that he’s “left modernism behind,” and Roger, based on his post, seems to be sympathetic to this position. But modernism is the artist’s reaction to modernity, a condition from which, for better or worse, we still suffer. To me, the bottom line is that everyone, regardless of technical, stylistic, and aesthetic leaning, ought to write better and more original music; some of it might be easier for audiences to grasp and some harder, but ultimately what we want is not “coteries” of partisans but distinct, creative individuals, right?

    However, everybody here already knows that; it’s pointless to repeat it. I feel a bit sheepish for pointing it out.

  18. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz


    I mean modernism as a stylistic era that faded a few decades ago, not as a generic term for an artistic reaction to contemporary life.

    Heck, if we’re not committed to our original work all the time, why bother? (Sometimes it’s a real trial, particularly if I’m meeting someone else’s specifications. I’ll be happy when this year is over.)

    Greg’s opinion has always been closest to mine, but I’ve felt that we’re still not quite in sync about it. I just don’t know why. It’s the evidence outside a city that I’m looking for, I suppose. (I once argued with Frank about it, saying that classical music as we know it is really over. If you can’t fill a small hall in New York, then isn’t it very dead?) So how’s all this cool presentation stuff actually work? Evidence or guesswork?

    Five More

  19. rtanaka

    …but ultimately what we want is not “coteries” of partisans but distinct, creative individuals, right?

    Nope — compared to the rest of the happenings in the world, the need for “distinction” really doesn’t come across as a priority, at least to me. But, the importance I see in art comes from its ability to connect itself to the external — sociology, economics, politics, class and power structures — something with some actual tangibility. Speak for yourself, but not for the rest of us.

    Modernism is, at this point, a historical term characterized by ideologies derived from the Cold War. (Anti-collectivism, anti-realism, anti-materialism, etc.) Mr. Kraft’s article, what with the references to Soviet Russia and JFK and all, seems to follow this pattern.

    I would argue that modernism ended in 1992, with the collapse of the Soviet Union being its marking point. I think its quite obvious that the post-USSR environment is vastly different than how things used to be, and that a different approach will be needed. So now its either postmodern, or contemporary, or whatever you wanna label it as. Maybe the confusion is in its labeling — it’s probably a mistake to equate “modern” with the “present” at this point in time, since the term has been around for so long.

  20. William Osborne

    What an interesting discussion. I am sure my questions don’t follow, Denis. There are still too many unknowns about the demise of modernism for us to draw straight lines. It is better to keep many possible and contradictory explanations in mind. Our memories and observations should also be quite varied, because modernism as a social phenomenon was so complex and had so many sides.

    You mention that you did not experience modernism as insular, which I am sure is a very valid observation. When I lived in NYC during the 70s I saw a lot of insularity – or at least what seemed like quite a bit. A case in point might be the BMI Awards. Only music written in the very complex, chromatic style of the Northeastern academic establishment won awards. This is at least one example that we can concretely document. I think one might also be able to document a similar insularity in the styles of the music of students admitted to many of the more established music schools.

    You are right that at least in NYC there were sometimes lively, large audiences for the music, but for the most part, that was not my experience. I went to almost all of the new music concerts, especially of the Uptown variety. Most were given in Carnegie Recital Hall (which now has a different name.) I almost always saw the same group of about 25 to 30 of us there – mostly other composers. The audiences for the new music concerts I went to were small and insular. I spent five months in NYC in 2004-5 and the audiences were entirely different. I saw 500 people at Miller Hall to hear John Zorn. The Bang On A Can concert at Merkin was sold out and there were huge lines of people tyring to get in. I saw nothing like this in the 70s.

    I remember going to one in Carnegie Recital Hall, around 1979, at the same time as Steve Reich was giving a concert in Carnegie Hall (the big famous one.) I turned the corner on 57th street and a huge waft of marijuana smoke hit me like a wall. (In 1979 drugs were everywhere in NYC, and joints were sold on many street corners.) There were hundreds of people on the street waiting for the Reich concert, and many were getting high. It was fashionable to listen to phasing music while being stoned. That’s when I first noticed that a new kind of music was evolving. As I walked by the hall I saw Morton Feldman standing on its front step trying to sell his tickets. He didn’t look happy. Somehow that is also a symbolic image burned into my memory.

    Anyway, I think there is room for many different and contradictory memories of what happened. History seems to reduce things to single narratives that leave out so much of what actually happened.

    As for education, I think it makes a difference. I am not so sure we have to focus on educating people about new music, but we need kids going through school band, orchestra, and choir programs. A larger demographic with musical literacy makes a significant difference. Allan Kozinn has an article in the Times that repeats almost verbatim some of the things we were saying about education in the “Surf’s Up” thread. Read it here.

    William Osborne

  21. A.C. Douglas

    I’ve bookmarked Roger Rudenstein’s most thoughtful and well-reasoned article for possible extended comment on my blog after the New Year, and while I find myself in agreement with Mr. Rudenstein’s analysis and with much of what he has to say, his following absolutely threw me, not to say made my socks curl so gratingly perverse is it:

    Like the critic Greg Sandow, I believe that education should be an important part of any concert. We can no longer take it for granted that the audience will understand classical music much less modern music. We must find creative, non- pedantic ways of accomplishing this.

    That’s the sort of mindless populist reasoning responsible for grotesque horrors such as the Concert Companion (a Greg Sandow-promoted contraption — now happily dead as the proverbial doornail — and one which — surprise! — Mr. Sandow had a hand in implementing) and seemingly interminable explanations from the stage by conductors or performers (or — Lord preserve us! — by composers themselves) whose time would be more properly and more profitably spent attending to the business of accomplishing a first-rate realization of the score before them. Any music requiring an explanation in words before it can be comprehended by an intelligent lay audience is music fundamentally and terminally flawed as music, and therefore ought not to be on the program in the first place.

    There exists no genuine music — from the classics to the most avant-garde — that doesn’t speak for itself by itself, and the notion that any music is so “difficult” that it cannot be comprehended at some level by an intelligent lay audience is simply imbecile. Which is not to say that a study of such “difficult” music — either formally or simply by repeated hearings — is not a worthwhile enterprise that will serve to both deepen and enrich understanding. It most decidedly is — outside — well outside — the concert experience which experience should be devoted exclusively to the attentive listening to the work(s) being performed. As I’ve above noted, genuine music speaks most eloquently for itself by itself always, and is in no need of words to either explain or justify itself. That’s in fact what makes music music, and is almost a definition of what music is about.


  22. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    I realize now that I’ve stumbled into the old uptown-downtown morass. I never went uptown. For me, after a few treks to Lincoln Center in 1964 as a high-school student, all my musical activities were downtown, whether performing in Charlotte Moorman’s annual Avant-Garde Festivals, working with the Judith Scott Dance Company, or just attending concerts. Music was basically a downtown scene for me, and your comment that “history seems to reduce things to single narratives that leave out so much of what actually happened” is exactly correct. My narrative doesn’t include the hostility, and the current revisionist narrative doesn’t include the excitement and thrill. (And I don’t know which concert of Reich you meant, but I was at the Town Hall “18 Musicians” and it was a blast. Other than that lovely little Xn Wolff piece he wrote that was on LP, I’d not yet heard of Feldman.)

    Off to Work for the Rest of the Day

  23. Rob Deemer

    Education vs. Preparation
    In response to ACD’s comments, I’d like to think that there’s a difference between the mindset of “educating” the audience (which can be both insulting and over-the-head to members of the same audience) and preparing the audience for what they’re about to experience. Whether or not this entails proper marketing, articles in the paper before the concert, pre-concert lectures, program notes or brief discussions before the work, anything that would help to give context to the work can’t be all that bad. Have we ever seen a movie preview thinking it’s one type of film and are unpleasantly surprised when it’s something different? We shouldn’t assume the audience won’t understand the work, but we should make sure they are listening with the right ears.

  24. Colin Holter

    Speak for yourself, but not for the rest of us.

    Touché–hoisted on my own petard. So you’d prefer “camps” of composers, artistic factions whose merits can be conveniently assessed as such? I think these kinds of constellations usually seem to fall apart when real scrutiny is applied to their constituents’ work. I’d much rather be judged as an individual rather than as a tribe-member.

    I used to believe fervently in camps, but that was back when I thought I belonged to one such camp.

  25. Orlando Fiol

    Once again, with Roger Rudenstein, we get this elitist notion that classical music is somehow a cut above folk and rock. Well, maybe it’s a cut above sanitized 1950s and 1960s American folk. But, I challenge the best classical performers to play one of those Bulgarian folk tunes in 15/8 at a brilliant clip. As for rock, do we even have to prove it anymore? Zappa, the Grateful Dead, King Crimson, Hendrix, Sonic Youth, Sufjan Stevens, take your pick. There’s plenty of intricate rock. What about jazz? Is it somehow a cut below Western classical music when its intricate big band compositions are meticulously notated and its improvisatory mavens can handle polytonality of the same intricacy as Shostakovich, Milhaud, or Adams composed?

    The problem as I see it is that contemporary classical composers are above all else seeking some kind of mandate upon which to build their careers and make their livings. It’s obvious that the performing classical world does not actually need new music because its performers and audiences are perfectly content with yet another hundred recordings of the standard repertoire. Some composers are angling themselves as movie or advertising hacks, providing incidental music for all sorts of pop culture events. But, others, like Rudenstein, are still clinging to the elitist notion that classical music has stood the test of time and is inherently better than other musical choices. No one likes elitism being rammed down their throats. My musical makeup is probably more influenced by classical music than anything else. Yet I must fight any attempt to privilege classical music over rumba, juju, dhrupad, Gambian kora, gamelan or any host of non-Western musics. Classical music may have taken harmony and counterpoint to their farthest extremes, but your average Ashanti royal drummer will wake up with a hangover playing more intricate rhythms than even Varese or Elliott Carter composed.

    I think we need to get real about what classical music actually means to contemporary culture, not what musicians want it to mean, but rather what the public thinks it means. This is what ethnomusicologists do, among other thankless pursuits. If classical music to most people means tonal narratives with sappy melodies and relatively square rhythms, let’s get that out in the open. If classical music tends to focus around European orchestral and chamber instruments, let’s get that out on the table too. If the average person has no patience for gut crunching electronic or serialist experiments, let that collective voice be heard.

  26. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Orlando’s provocative comments span the cultural-equivalence spectrum.

    Can we tell if something is better than another? Not by experimental evidence, but by our choices. Why did I choose classical/nonpop? Choices. Not just mine, but the number offered. Deep cultural traditions can also be bound to deep cultural limits.

    To me, classical/nonpop is about choices. I can include everything from the avant-garde and aleatoric approaches through classical harmonies through “rumba, juju, dhrupad, Gambian kora, gamelan or any host of non-Western musics”. I may run into economic issues, but I do not face aesthetic ones: classical/nonpop is open to reconfiguration, open to rethinking, open to experimentation and redevelopment. Are other musics configured to do the same? Or are they deeper traditions than classical/nonpop?

    Like the Donegal fiddler or the Mozart interpreter, their performers work within a smaller albeit richer world. To move out of those traditions is to move away from them, not necessarily to expand them. There is experiment in gamelan, for example, but it appears to have moved into classical/nonpop, and not influenced the tradition itself. Are there significant and long-term exceptions to my generalization?

    This is far too big a topic for my expertise, but there seems something incomparable between the forms and traditions Orlando mentions and the, if you like, great gray goo of classical/nonpop assimilation, against which resistance is futile (except for, say, audiences…).


  27. rtanaka

    So you’d prefer “camps” of composers, artistic factions whose merits can be conveniently assessed as such?

    No, but what’s obvious to me is that noone — and I do mean noone — is immune from influences of their surroundings. So I am Japanese-American, so therefore influences from that area of things creep in. My interest in multiculturalism comes from growing up in Hawaii. I like Bartok because I’m sympathetic with the idea of elevating and synthesizing folk and indigenous musics.

    All of this I learned from doing art. And I think that in the end I found that yes, maybe I am an interesting person. But it wasn’t something that I forced through the sheer act of willpower, but simply noticing and being sincere with what’s already there. An honest person is never uninteresting, and art is interesting because it brings out the truth out of the artist whether they’re conscious of it or not. But, if the artist wants more control over their own work, then they should be aware of where their ideas are coming from. I guarantee that if you’re being honest, there is no way that you’ll be able to say that your style is completely severed from the past.

    Anyway, in materialistic terms, modernism and postmodernism can be looked at from its means of production. Modern methods focused on mass-production, while nowadays I think business practices can be said to be moving towards “mass-customization”. This is sort of a mixture of the old and the new, trying to come to a compromise between the “ready-made” and the “taylor-made” of older styles. Will music too, reflect this? I think its already being done in some circles.

  28. William Osborne

    For me, arguing about the relative merits of pop and classical in terms of which is superior is like trying to decide if pickups are superior to sedans. The relative merits can only be determined when placed in the context of function. If you want to haul around a load of bricks, the pickup is better. If you want to drive around a whole family, the sedan might be preferable. Can we assign music absolute values separate from its context or function?

    Pop and jazz easily compares to classical in terms of pitch usage, rhythmic complexity, and timbreal richness. If I were to make an argument for the superiority of Western classical music, I would address its capacities for creating large musical structures. I think jazz and pop generally fall short of classical in that area (though some exceptions exitst.) But isn’t that like criticizing a sedan because you can’t haul a couch in its trunk? And Western classical probably has a richer, more complex, and functional notational system than any other music – though here too it is difficult to separate the evaluation from function.

    If I wanted to argue for the superiority of jazz, I would address its capacity for nuances of tone and articulation, which far outstrip the resources of classical music. But how do you substantiate the equality or superiority of music based on an evaluation of a limited set of parameters?

    It is absurd to try to place absolute evaluations on music, which can only be relative to function. Without this understanding, the pop vs. classical debate is meaningless, and yet it goes on and on here on NMB.

    All of that aside, if the pop people want to horn in on the classical stage and audience, more power to them. There is no greater bastard than classical music. There is almost nothing it can’t absorb. And like Denis hinted, that might be its greatest strength of all.

    William Osborne

  29. rtanaka

    There is no greater bastard than classical music. There is almost nothing it can’t absorb. And like Denis hinted, that might be its greatest strength of all.

    Yes, this is something that people tend to forget, I think. Bach’s music came to being because he managed to synthesize all the “known” styles at the time — Italian, French, German…there are examples of Mozart deriving his works from folk sources, as well many examples of classical composers taking influences from “exotic” sources, like Turkish marching bands. Classical music has always thrived on being inclusive, and yes, this does include a consideration for the audience as well.

  30. rudenste

    “But, others, like Rudenstein, are still clinging to the elitist notion that classical music has stood the test of time and is inherently better than other musical choices. No one likes elitism being rammed down their throats.”

    I’m glad this comment was made since it exemplifies the way discussions about taste are often handled these days, unfortunately. I believe it is not “elitist” to believe that classical music is superior to other types of music in complexity, depth and artistic effectiveness just as it is not elitist to believe that the literary novel is a superior form of literature to folk narratives and other fictional discourse including comic books (or graphic novels as they are now dubbed). Dragging out “elitism” is an effective way to put a praise-worthy political goal, i.e. equality of all peoples, in place of a sober musical analysis. The writer further states:

    “My musical makeup is probably more influenced by classical music than anything else. Yet I must fight any attempt to privilege classical music over rumba, juju, dhrupad, Gambian kora, gamelan or any host of non-Western musics. Classical music may have taken harmony and counterpoint to their farthest extremes, but your average Ashanti royal drummer will wake up with a hangover playing more intricate rhythms than even Varese or Elliott Carter composed.”

    Now classical music is getting some kind of “privilege” over the music of the exploited folk. Perhaps, in this view, classical music is ok for the writer and for me, but not for the Ashanti. I don’t think so. I think it is a universal musical language and many composers have shown the ability to infuse their compositions with the folk and popular music of their own ethnic origins. Telling the truth about classical music is not an elitist act, it is a reasonable act and there is no reason to feel ashamed that it began in the West or anywhere else — that is wholly irrelevant in a world in which people compose and play classical music in virtually every country on the globe. Western aristocrats invented opera…should we, therefore, be ashamed of opera. Was Jonas Salk too rich to invent a polio vaccine? If Shakespeare really was the Earl of Oxford should we shun his works as the elitist product of a rich proto-imperialist and admit that they are not superior in any way to rap lyrics?

    And, as for ramming anything down anyone’s throat, the shoe is really on the other foot. Huge bucks are invested by companies, whose main interest is not art but super profits, into making popular music and entertainment appear everywhere we turn while the powers that rule and these same companies dole out pittances to the arts and arts education. That’s worse than elitism, it’s criminal.

  31. A.C. Douglas

    In a July 2004 blog article which generated much discussion within the cultural blogosphere titled, “An Audience For Classical Music”, I wrote the following (the full article may be read here):

    [I]n the hierarchy of music, classical music, by every meaningful aesthetic measure, occupies the very highest level; one distinct from all other levels, platitudinous and pernicious equalitarian pap such as the following from a professional classical music critic, who more than most ought to know better, notwithstanding. Wrote this classical music critic (who, as an act of charity, I leave nameless):

    “Music is a very broad river, into which many streams flow. Classical is only one of those streams. It has particular virtues other kinds of music don’t have, but then they have virtues of their own.”

    Bypassing the lame imagery of the metaphor that has music as a river rather than the vast, life-nourishing sea it is, classical music is not merely “one of [music’s] streams,” but music’s very apotheosis; the one instantiation of music that alone is capable of subsuming and transfiguring all of music’s other instantiations. Given that inarguable truth, classical music promoted as just another “stream” flowing into the “river” of music will ultimately be met, by those at which the promotion is aimed, with the same sort of disbelief and contempt afforded the person who attempts to present himself as what he manifestly is not, and by the attempt renders himself thoroughly ridiculous as he cannot help but do. Think of a redneck attempting to pass himself off as a genuine aristocrat, or, much worse, and much more to the point, vice versa.

    Is that an “elitist” position, or merely the statement of a clear, “inarguable truth” as I called it?

    To quote myself further from the same article:

    Classical music is, by its very nature, a fundamentally elite enterprise, and should never be viewed or promoted as anything other.

    Saying that classical music is, by its very nature, a fundamentally elite enterprise is NOT the same as saying it’s an elitist enterprise. It’s most decidedly nothing of the sort. Classical music welcomes one and all — on its own terms, of course, as does any worthwhile artform, which terms are not the terms of The Street, the multitudes. That’s the province of popular (i.e., commercial) music which is made expressly to appeal to the tastes and on the terms of the multitudes which is, of course, the very thing that makes it popular.

    We really do have to put a stop to this politically tendentious and accusatory use of the terms elite and elitist which in our present culture are second in opprobrium only to declaring someone or something pedophilic. Such use of those terms says volumes more ugly and unpleasant things about our culture than it does about its targets.


  32. A.C. Douglas


    Unfortunate typo in my above. Sentence that begins,

    “We really do have to put a stop to this politically tendentious and accusatory use of the terms elite and elitist…,”

    should have read,

    “We really do have to put a stop to this politically tendentious and accusatory use of the terms elite and elitism….”


  33. William Osborne

    These are interesting defenses of the “superiority” of classical music. I prefer Roger’s approach to A.C.’s, because it argues from a broader cultural basis, and a closer technical knowledge of music, while A.C. points to axiomatic beliefs that he seems to feel are self-evident (and might be.) Roger also does a better job of avoiding polemic. A.C.’s more absolutist stance, written in the style of an Upper West Side Brahman, almost serves as an example of the cultural “privileging” described by postmodernism. (It makes him fun to read, though – a sort of James Wolcott of music.)

    Both authors say we need to stop the politically tendentious and accusatory use of the terms elite and elitist. In many respects that it is true, but of course, we still need to examine the elitist distribution of classical music in America. Due to our unique and internationally isolated use of private arts funding, we do not reach a wide demographic with classical music like the Europeans do.

    One other defense of the presumed superiority of classical music might be its longer history. Classical music is at least 800 years old, while American pop music is maybe a hundred years old at most. If you follow its roots back to the earliest origins of jazz it might be a little older. You might extend the history a bit by following its folk roots, but the exercise becomes tenuous. So why should a 100 year-old tradition claim equality with one 800 years old?

    One might also consider that this 800 year-old tradition is the product of about 30 European countries, while the pop music presented as equal is essentially an Anglo-American phenomenon that is only around 60 years old. Isn’t there a certain presumption in claiming such a young tradition is equal to its much older counterpart? And does it reflect a possible Anglo-American ethnocentricity? Is that perhaps one reason continental Europeans see much of America’s postmodern music as provincial eclecticism, and hold it at arm’s length?

    But again, value follows function. If I wanted to hear, for example, a profound existential expression of the sadness around lost love, I might be more inclined to turn to Bessie Smith than Wolfgang, Sebastian, or Ludwig. And I’m not that into Lederhosen, either.

    William Osborne

  34. nissim

    I can’t help dig into the last post there – if we were going to judge musics based on their longevity, we would need sing the praises most loudly of Gagaku, which has been performed in a continuous tradition in the Japanese courts for something like 1500 years. I love Gagaku, but I’m not prepared to call it “superior” to Western classical music.

    All of which is to say – why are we having a discussion of superiority at all? Can we maybe come to a consensus that Japanese classical traditions are different from Indian classical traditions is different from jazz is different from Western classical music is different from whatever folk tradition you want to mention – and that there’s something to be learned from all of them? Is that so hard?

    Back to what we as composers owe our audience, and vice versa. I wrote about both the Holland and the Kraft articles a few weeks ago – here and here. Both made me angry. A summary – as relevant to the topic of discussion – I would say that we as composers owe the audience the best work we can give them. And they, who, as others have mentioned, aren’t discovering out of nowhere that there’s a recent piece on the concert, owe us the courtesy of listening to our music as they would any other piece on the program – attentively, actively, critically, patiently. Holland seems to think that the audience should not need to put in any effort in order to understand a new work – but that would be like saying that the audience shouldn’t need to put in any effort to understand the obscure piece by Handel that they’ve never heard before. Being new doesn’t make a work fundamentally different from anything else on the program – and that cuts both ways.

    I agree with AC Douglas (I never thought I’d say that!) that a new piece should – must – speak for itself, but if I’ve gone through the effort to create a new work, I think I can ask the audience to listen to it carefully before deciding that they hate it!

  35. William Osborne

    I agree, Nissam, discussion of the superiority of musical styles are futile, especially divorced from their context or function.

    The question you raise about the age of cross-cultural traditions and their value is much more complex. It is one thing to compare the age, richness, and depth of styles within a culture, and another to do this cross-culturally. Even inter-cultural comparisons of musical style often lack valid comparable criteria. Such analysis becomes virtually impossible in cross-cultural comparisons.

    If there were a 60 year-old contemporary Japanese music coming from the same cultural milieu as the 1500 year-old Gagaku tradition, there might be enough common ground for comparisons to be made. I would seem reasonable to suspect the 1500 year-old tradition of having much more richness and depth. But of course, nothing is certain in these types of speculations.

    William Osborne

  36. A.C. Douglas

    A.C.’s more absolutist stance, written in the style of an Upper West Side Brahman, almost serves as an example of the cultural “privileging” described by postmodernism.

    I warmly accept the charge. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. In a cultural era in which popular culture and populist thinking has so perniciously and pervasively infested every domain of the arts, it’s almost a moral obligation.


  37. William Osborne

    As my posts might suggest, I am generally sympathetic to your standpoint. I think, however, that in the end, reasoned arguments based on history and a technical knowledge of music will have more effect than somewhat blustery polemics. On the other hand, I very much enjoy your blog and its pleasant combination of articulate knowledge, irony, and humor. It occupies a legitimate and valued space in the overall debate – moral obligations or not.

    I’d love to hear someone take a stab at the argument about the relative ages of classical and pop. How can such a young tradition claim equality with one so much older? How can artists in such a short period create something equal to the long-term achievements of the so called Western canon? Even A.C. would probably enjoy your post, though I can’t vouch for what it would do to his socks. (See his Dec. 28 missive.)

    William Osborne

  38. rtanaka

    “The first thing that struck me about contemporary music in general had been that there was not much interest in rhythm.” – Elliott Carter

    As Orlando mentions above, if there’s any “weakness” in classical music, it would lie in its rhythms. Because the medium mostly focused its efforts on harmonic and thematic development, its rhythms are usually very square. You have the traditional standard rep which are mostly in 4/4 with occasional 3/4s, and a reaction to this, lots of “new” musics have a tendency to sound “rhythmless”. But nothing quite like the intricate rhythmic gestures like Indian musics, poly-rhythms of African musics, or the strong syncopated gestures of jazz musics.

    So classical music can either choose to acknowledge these (what I think are fairly obvious) strengths, or ignore it and become stagnant. Audiences are also tend to be very responsive to rhythms, which makes the success of popular and jazz musics really a non-mystery. But if maintaining the purity of the European legacy is of the only concern (old or new), then of course such things as above will not come across as being important. All a matter of individual priority, I suppose.

  39. scottj

    I’ve enjoyed reading some of these thoughtful and unexpected observations today, despite a few sad chuckles over the utterly predictable, indeed, nearly automated community loyalty oaths (check for appearances of the word “superiority”). But until the happy appearance of William Osborne’s post “value follows function”, it was most discouraging to see continued comparison of “pop” and “classical” with barely a glimmer of understanding that the two exist in an ecological relationship – or at least they did while the classical tradition was busy building the platform upon which today’s crowbar-wielding purists are so precariously perched.

    The insight that different musics evolve to serve different cultural functions should be a starting point for any rational and realistic discussion about the nature of classical music. Of course popular songs rarely solve the 5-minute problem, and of course dance music is primarily intended as the soundtrack for human mating rituals — and of course we are all reading this because we like more discursive forms of music which are free to play with any or all of the above. It’s a bit bizarre to see so much ritual invocation of communal solidarity and superiority on such a basic point –- rather like a group of coyotes who never tire of pointing out that squirrels make lousy coyotes.

    It’s just as obvious that any extended listening to classical music from any period except the late 20th century will be shot full of musical material gleaned from that period’s versions of vernacular forms. As I said in my article, “most music is targeted, and concert music’s goal of encompassing and evoking these disparate experiences is a fascinating and valuable exception, not the rule.” It’s a wonderful goal, and pursuing does not require that we monopolize the landscape. I do wish we could do as well as our classical ancestors, who were a successful minority in their cultures, but that won’t happen until we rid ourselves of taboos against the vernacular.

    Every cell in our bodies is a eukaryotic hybrid, its energy supplied by mitochondria: the engulfed descendants of small critters which once found a place within a larger critter, just as today’s lichens are algae living permanently within fungi. Similarly, the complexity of the concert music tradition grew directly from the gradual assimilation of elements from the often unsophisticated musical life of the various cultures it passed through. This allowed composers to situate themselves in their own time and place, and allowed audiences to see themselves refracted and reflected in the concert hall.

    Imagine if Bach had grown up knowing that he would accumulate professional and social status by sneering and making fun of the stupid gavottes and gigues and courantes that all the drunk people were dancing to on Saturday night. We might have missed out on a few things.

  40. A.C. Douglas

    As my posts might suggest, I am generally sympathetic to your standpoint. I think, however, that in the end, reasoned arguments based on history and a technical knowledge of music will have more effect than somewhat blustery polemics.

    All my arguments here and on my blog are grounded in both a knowledge of history and a technical knowledge of music. But if by “reasoned arguments” you mean the sort adduced by academics, musicologists, cultural philosophers, and the like, the time for such arguments has long passed. The Zeitgeist of the sixties — a Zeitgeist which still lives today in its reductio ad absurdum, postmodernism — has effectively rendered such arguments impotent to deal with the ubiquitous and malignant problem. It’s a shooting war now, and what’s required is not reasoned argument but hot lead right to the gut where it hurts the most and does the most damage without necessarily killing. Ergo, my “blustery polemics.” Perhaps in future a cultural milieu will again arise wherein civilized and reasoned argument once again holds sway. But that future has yet to arrive, and will never arrive as long as the populist barbarians who decades ago crashed through the gate continue to maintain hold of the keep.

    On a more personal note, my thanks for your kind and most gracious remarks about my blog. Most gratifying indeed.


  41. William Osborne

    Well, A.C., I can’t disagree with you. I wish I were better at shooting “hot lead to the gut without necessarily killing,” but I think my heart is too soft. Nor am I able to conjure such great phrases. I am so desperate to see something genuinely creative that I look even to those damned populists. Keep up the good (and somewhat lonely) work. There are certain parts of your battle that I hope win these utterly desperate cultural wars.

    And Scott, that’s a truly excellent and detailed metaphor about the biological nature of musical evolution. I need to think about that a lot more. At the moment, a little too late for that now here in Europe. Maybe in the morning. (Hmm. There goes another metaphor.) It also shows how most everyone in this discussion is pursuing the same ultimate goal. Elitists and populists seem to be various platoons of the same force battling against artistic stasis –a kind of biological struggle against artistic death and extinction.

    William Osborne

  42. coreydargel

    As composers and musicians depending on grants and non-profit structures in order to make a living, we are often required to measure the success of our work using the kind of statistical and numerical data that foundations and governmental organizations can relate to. It’s not enough to say that composers and musicians are keeping alive the mystery, the irreducible complexity, or the multivalent interpretive possibilities of art. Rather, we have to say how many people attended our concerts, and whether or not they felt “connected” to a composer/musician as a fellow human, or a fellow worker (in the Marxist sense of the word).

    Maybe the disconnect between pop music and classical music (for the purposes of this discussion anyway) is that pop music does not carry the burden of having to demystify itself. Because pop musicians have decided to pursue for-profit means of making a living, they are not beholden to the requirements of the government or foundations. Furthermore, people respect rock stars because they behave in peculiar ways that place them above and beyond the average citizen. If you’re a classical musician who behaves that way, you’re called an elitist.

    BTW, I’m not saying that pop music is less intricate or less important than classical music. That argument has no logical merit whatsoever. Sometimes I think it is made only by people who feel the need to classify a work of art before enjoying it.

    Or maybe it is made by people who have a prejudice against a certain kind of music because they haven’t heard a wide enough representation of it. It’s true that 90% of pop music is mediocre or worse. But so is 90% of classical music.

  43. jdecp

    Our environment is not merely a market place of ideas, but also a market place of sounds. And in the same way that products of varying sorts either find their market or niche or fail to attract, the artifacts of new music encounter a similar fate. While some may argue or provide statistics that the audience for new music has been increasing, the fact remains that audiences, large or small, tend to vote with their feet and their wallets, and we should certainly be able to agree that not everything that is out there will develop a following, whether ticket-paying or not.

    As this electronic roundtable demonstrates (yet again), concerning tastes, there can only be many opinions. And a consensus is no imprimatur for what is or isn’t art or artistic — all prior efforts to the contrary notwithstanding. Surely, creativity is not dictated by polls or markets or critics. So, in the first instance, it ought not surprise, shock or outrage that someone’s opinion (subjective in the extreme though it may be) will become a lightning rod for reaction or, what is more to the point, a prompt for manifesting the diversity of perspectives that is the true voice of the market place — never mind what the critics say.

    John de Clef Piñeiro
    Executive Director
    New York Composers Circle

  44. rtanaka

    Because pop musicians have decided to pursue for-profit means of making a living, they are not beholden to the requirements of the government or foundations.

    Yes, lets be honest about this. Government resources are, by definition, a public good. So I think it is only common sense to say that if said resources are to be allocated to such causes then it should be justified under the benefit of a larger community or cause. To say otherwise would just undermine the integrity of the process.

    There is a concept called the common good which has been around since the days of Aristotle — a complex idea that is neither for the benefit of the select few, nor for the tyranny of the majority — but what is good for the whole, both in benefit of the individual and the collective. Although its definition is often elusive, perhaps its a goal worth striving toward, rather than arguing to death the “man vs. society” issue which has been a reoccurring topic for thousands of years already…

  45. coreydargel

    There is a concept called the common good which has been around since the days of Aristotle… Although its definition is often elusive, perhaps its a goal worth striving toward, rather than arguing to death the “man vs. society” issue which has been a reoccurring topic for thousands of years already…

    Yes, both issues — “the common good” and “man vs. society” — have been around for a long time. Both have been “reoccurring [sic] for thousands of years already.” And both are still important, don’t you think?

  46. William Osborne

    I appreciate John’s comments about the marketplace of ideas and how musics find their niches in economies. We might assume that musical success follows a kind of “natural law” based on appeal, supply, and demand. Of course, that is not completely true, since the market is so strongly influenced by massive media organizations. Consider the The New York Times, for example, which initiated this discussion. The company’s 2006 revenues were $3.3 billion. The company also owns the International Herald Tribune, The Boston Globe, 15 other daily newspapers, WQXR-FM and more than 30 Web sites, including, and We’re farting against thunder.

    With concentrations of power like this, the primary factor of artistic success might not be its appeal to people, but rather its support by elite financial interests. Even public arts funding can have difficulty countering these forces, since the financial elite also have enormous influence on our national, state, and local governments. Can even artists who embrace populism have success without the support of big media and its financial elite?

    Artists such as Jeff Koons, a former Wall Street marketing executive, employs a media consultant to further his career. Much of his work seems to be specifically designed to manipulate the media in order to increase his fame and brandname. Gustav Dudamel has recently signed-on with a media consultant, as do most big-name classical music artists. The course toward sustained fame is carefully charted.

    Is the web helping to resolve this issue by giving everyone a sort of digital loudspeaker? Or is big media also increasingly dominating the net? How long will it be before laws are passed that privilege the power of the media even on the web, such as the recently rejected laws that would have given them priority access to telephone cables?

    And on a more basic level, is there something in human nature that often causes us to overlook the voices of the wise and gifted? Even in our own small discussion here, we often overlook some of the best speakers. Most of my posts here were actually initiated and inspired by Dennis Bathory-Kitsz’s comments. Even though his comments are often very useful, they are often overlooked because his voice is sometimes quiet and self-effacing.

    Anyway, a lot of what we call populism isn’t populism at all, but rather crass machinations of big media out for a buck.

    William Osborne

  47. Colin Holter

    I don’t think it’s fair to paint Koons and Dudamel with the same brush. Koons’ manipulation of the art-media and -commerce situations is a vital part of his aesthetic: In a sense, his retaining a personal trainer, press consultant, etc. is a piece. At the very least, it’s a piece of his persona, one he’s constructed to reveal certain problems by becoming them (and which is at once strengthened and undermined by the fact that he actually gets to keep all the money he makes). Dudamel is just trying to make it in this business.

    Could anyone here honestly say that they wouldn’t hire an agent to ram their music up the pipe of every orchestra, opera company, alternative venue, record company, etc. if they could afford to? If, like Ives, I had the resources to buy musical exposure, I’d do it in a heartbeat. That said, my hat is off to those of you who wouldn’t.

  48. William Osborne

    >I don’t think it’s fair to paint Koons and Dudamel with the same brush.< I didn’t. (See my comment above.) In fact, I am not sure what to think of Koons. Wiki has a nice summation of the controversy surrounding his work, both pro and con. Here is a passage from it: “However, Mark Stevens of The New Republic dismissed him as a ‘decadent artist [who] lacks the imaginative will to do more than trivialize and italicise his themes and the tradition in which he works… He is another of those who serve the tacky rich.’ Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times saw ‘one last, pathetic gasp of the sort of self-promoting hype and sensationalism that characterized the worst of the 1980s’ and threw in for good measure ‘artificial,’ ‘cheap’ and ‘unabashedly cynical.'” In any case, Koons’ work and career might illustrate the complexities surrounding populism, self-promotion, and the media. William Osborne

  49. William Osborne

    Earlier we were discussing the relative merits of classical and pop, and addressed classical’s capacity for creating large structures. Anthony Tommasini has written an article on that theme published in today’s Times. He also discusses the relative merits of pop and classical, and mentions two larger concept pop albums that experiment with larger forms. Read it here:

    Seems like Big Brother is watching. To bad they can’t just come over and join us. :-)

    William Osborne

  50. rtanaka

    Could anyone here honestly say that they wouldn’t hire an agent to ram their music up the pipe of every orchestra, opera company, alternative venue, record company, etc. if they could afford to? If, like Ives, I had the resources to buy musical exposure, I’d do it in a heartbeat. That said, my hat is off to those of you who wouldn’t.

    I would, sure. But keep in mind that Ives made his living through private means and spent his own hard-earned money. I think he earned his voice, if anything. Nobody really cares if you use your own resources to promote yourself — more power to you if you can make it work, because it’s really not all that easy. For every success you see in the popular media, how many have failed? It’s a pretty brutal world out there.

    But with government funding, there should be more caution. Its purpose is to provide something to society that the private sector doesn’t, and ideally, it should be for the good for the public. When I hear people like Milton Babbitt speak of the “good ol’ days” when the government was sponsoring individual artists I can’t help but think that perhaps that way of thinking is a bit outdated…in fact, although I do respect some of Babbitt’s works, maybe the system of funding was probably something which should never have come into being into the first place. We wouldn’t be any better than sleazy politicians if we were using public goods solely for individual benefit. I don’t think we should be let off the hook of accountability just because we’re artists.

    Yes, both issues — “the common good” and “man vs. society” — have been around for a long time. Both have been “reoccurring [sic] for thousands of years already.” And both are still important, don’t you think?

    Yes, they’re worth talking about, of course. But I’m a little tired of hearing extremist positions favoring one over the other, as if they were mutually exclusive. In the millennia of discussion, I can’t really imagine too many interesting things coming out of the usual polarized opinions because the arguments on either isles are usually pretty similar to each other regardless of historical context. (Although they play themselves in different forms, with the Cold War being the most recent of its dichotomization.)

    On the other hand, if you want to provoke a response, exaggerating your opinion sometimes works as a marketing device. Sometimes you have to be a bit hyperbolic in order to make a point…sometimes it hard to tell who’s being honest.

  51. philmusic

    I’m reminded of those recipes for stew that start; “first catch a rabbit”.

    We talk a whole lot about the “audiences” here as if they were a big monolithic entity, rather then sets and subsets and more subsets of subsets. Excluding our own private parties, how many of us will actually ever get to confront this so-called audience? How many of us will be performed by or under the auspices of major institutions or will be reviewed by Mr. Holland?

    There are many kinds of composers and wannabes out there. I know two kinds:

    those who accept the music world for what it is–because its to their advantage.

    and those who don’t, because its not.

    Phil Fried

  52. rudenste

    I think Scott Johnson, William Osborne and others in this discussion have made good arguments why it is not elitism, in the perjorative sense of the word, to champion classical music. Nor is it a good idea to denigrate popular music. There is much good music in popular music and it would be foolish to think that classical music can and ever could exist without the broader stream of folk music, ragtime, tin pan alley, rock, blues, jazz and all the rest. Similarly, fine art does not rule out illustration nor does high drama rule out sitcoms and soap operas.

    While there are those who get no inspiration from popular forms, many of us have and do as well as getting just plain enjoyment. However, I think its unfair to declare that anyone must. First of all, it’s almost impossible not to be influenced by the sounds one hears around one all the time. And if someone resisted these completely and consciously made sure their compositions were purged of anything resembling folk or pop then so what? If their music is good, it’s good. If I’ve learned one thing its that creating diktats for what makes good classical music is a waste at time at best and can lead to foolishness at worst.

    At the heart of everything, and it’s in this discussion all over the place, is the twelve ton elephant still sitting in the corner: Why are the composers everyone knows of the pop and folk variety? Most of us are not satisfied by the proposition that pop is the new classical music. We know better than that. Why are the latest classical music critics in the major media outlets so pop oriented? Why do we hear classical music in movie backgrounds and in numerous commercials, reaching millions, yet the composers of these artifacts are not generally known?

    Instead of spending endless hours trying to be “theoretically correct” maybe we should spend more time thinking up ways to bring classical music back to the attention of the public. I think the Norman Lear Institute statistic shows there is something to work with. For starters some of the polemical talent shown in the Chatter should be harnessed against the denigration of classical music that I mentioned in my article. We really need to form a lobby against that kind of thing. In addition, we really need a publicly prominent awards ceremony for classical music (I suggested inaugerating “The Classies”). Things, like this, done with a sense of humor and good will could have a profound effect on the public’s perception of classical music.

    The vitality of this discussion plus all the other stuff we know about shows that classical music is far from dead…but the public doesn’t seem to know it. As Joe Hill said: “Don’t mourn – organize!”

  53. philmusic

    “Why are the latest classical music critics in the major media outlets so pop oriented? …”

    I have been reading that many major media outlets are dropping their “classical music” coverage. So whats left?

    Phil Fried

  54. A.C. Douglas

    We really need to form a lobby against [the denigration of classical music]. In addition, we really need a publicly prominent awards ceremony for classical music (I suggested inaugerating “The Classies”). Things, like this, done with a sense of humor and good will could have a profound effect on the public’s perception of classical music.

    It very well could. And as well-intentioned as the idea is, quite the wrong impression indeed. One does NOT gain a new audience for classical music by aping the mass-market marketing techniques of popular culture. By doing so, one succeeds only in making an unintentional bad joke with classical music as its butt. As I wrote in my July 2004 blog post above linked (which blog post can be read here):

    And it’s important how [classical music is] sold, too. If it’s sold as merely another “stream” flowing into the “river” of music the campaign will fail — abjectly. It must be sold as the elite enterprise it in truth and in fact is; something to aspire to. And that means the purveyors and performers of classical music must never succumb to the temptation to ape the marketing techniques or the outward trappings of the world of mass entertainment, or dumb down classical music’s content or presentation, in the false and doomed hope of thereby attracting a greater following. There must never be permitted a disconnect between projected image and the true reality of the thing itself (i.e., classical music’s fundamentally elite nature). In marketing terms, classical music must be sold honestly as a vintage Château Latour, not a sexily packaged, reasonably priced Napa Valley Merlot or, worse, some concocted hybrid as is today attempted in classical music presentations featuring so-called “crossover” music.

    In the instant case, an awards ceremony for classical music on the model of the Grammy awards is both ill-conceived and ultimately destructive of that which it intends to promote as it would place classical music on the same level as any of pop culture’s commodities; something classical music manifestly is not. To repeat what I’ve above already posted, (also an excerpt from my July 2004 blog post):

    Bypassing the lame imagery of the metaphor that has music as a river rather than the vast, life-nourishing sea it is, classical music is not merely “one of [music’s] streams,” but music’s very apotheosis; the one instantiation of music that alone is capable of subsuming and transfiguring all of music’s other instantiations. Given that inarguable truth, classical music promoted as just another “stream” flowing into the “river” of music will ultimately be met, by those at which the promotion is aimed, with the same sort of disbelief and contempt afforded the person who attempts to present himself as what he manifestly is not, and by the attempt renders himself thoroughly ridiculous as he cannot help but do. Think of a redneck attempting to pass himself off as a genuine aristocrat, or, much worse, and much more to the point, vice versa.

    Where classical music is concerned, pandering to the tastes and expectations of proles is NOT the answer — ever.


  55. A.C. Douglas

    Words missing in my last. Sentence that reads:

    “Where classical music is concerned, pandering to the tastes and expectations of proles is NOT the answer — ever,”

    should have read:

    “Where the promotion of classical music is concerned, pandering to the tastes and expectations of proles is NOT the answer — ever.”


  56. A.C. Douglas

    Damn! My sentence,

    “It very well could. And as well-intentioned as the idea is, quite the wrong impression indeed,”

    should have read:

    “It very well could. And as well-intentioned as the idea is, quite the wrong perception indeed.”


  57. William Osborne

    A.C., I think we all agree that pandering would probably NOT significantly increase the public for classical music (though I am not sure that’s what Roger’s ideas are.) I think we also all agree that there are many cases where pandering crosss-over has weakened artistic standards. David Lister, Media and Culture Editor for The Guardian, created an interesting summary of some examples:

    “The members of the string quartet Bond, who were trained classically, perform in skimpy tops, tight trousers and stilettos. Sometimes they are accompanied on stage by nubile dancers and a rock band, and play music with a dance beat. British chart compilers said their debut album was pop music and banned it from their classical chart but it went to the top of the American version.” :

    “The 23-year-old violinist Vanessa-Mae can probably claim first rights on emerging from the sea in a suitably dripping outfit to promote her skills in performing a concerto. When still a teenager she used the wet look in one of her early promotional videos.” :

    “One critic said of Russell Watson [a singer]: ‘His ability is reliant on massive amplification, and I very much doubt whether he has the stamina (or the desire) to sing an entire role in an opera.’”:

    “The ‘Gregorian Babes’ [to] whom Sir Thomas refers to [are] a desperate attempt to manufacture a classical version of the Spice Girls. The group went to the top of the classical charts, but their medieval madrigals were described by one critic as ‘estuary Latin’.” :

    So, A.C. we know what you think won’t work, but what do think would? How can we increase the appreciation and support for classical music? My suggestions, very briefly stated, are better arts education in the public schools, which would involve getting kids into well-run school bands, orchestras, and choirs. Second, we need a system of public arts funding involved in a LONG-TERM process of making the performing arts an integral part of our communities so that they are accessible to a wider demographic. What are your suggestions? Can you spell them out for us, even if briefly?

    William Osborne

  58. A.C. Douglas

    So, A.C. we know what you think won’t work, but what do think would? How can we increase the appreciation and support for classical music?

    My answer to that question is contained in the very same July 2004 blog post which I’ve here been excerpting. The pertinent grafs read:

    So, if pandering to proles is not the answer, what, then, is? I’ll risk a tentative answer, but in fundamental principle only as I’ve neither the foggiest notion how, nor the professional expertise necessary, to put the thing into actual practice.

    The alpha and omega of it is that a hardcore audience for classical music can, in huge part, be created only by targeting the very young. If you fail to get ’em very young, you mostly don’t get ’em at all.

    And that targeting must begin with the pre-kindergarten young, and continue at least through early adolescence. Schools, both public and private, cannot do the job by themselves, although they have their place in the campaign. Neither, strange to tell, can parents, although they, too, have their place. In today’s world, the single most important — overwhelmingly important — entity in the promotion of classical music is none other than the commercial media, cable and broadcast TV most especially, via its content, not via commercials, public service or paid-for. If classical music is not sold there, it will remain largely unsold no matter what else is done. Classical music must be made a part of the very air children breathe, and only the commercial media can accomplish that.


    As I said, a tentative answer in fundamental principle only, and a long, hard road to travel, but an on-the-right-track — the only right track — beginning. Without a long-term commitment to the education of the young, the classical music concert as we know it today (that is, neither watered- nor dumbed-down in either content or presentation to accommodate the ignorant) will be doomed to the trash bin of history.

    In short, there are no quick-fix answers to the problem, and no short-term marketing ploys that will do the job that needs doing.


  59. A.C. Douglas

    …that the graf replaced by the square-bracketed ellipsis in my last comment is the graf I’ve already excerpted in this thread (in my comment before the last); the graf that begins, And it’s important how it’s sold, too. If it’s sold as merely another “stream” flowing into the “river” of music the campaign will fail — abjectly.


  60. William Osborne

    At least to my mind, your answer seems quite related to Roger’s. You both advocate the use of television to increase the profile of classical music. Roger’s “Classies” awards would surely need to be backed up by a greater presentation of music on TV. Here in Europe, every country has a state television network with the mandate to present the arts. These networks also own and operate their own symphony orchestras. Many, if not most, of the concerts are broadcast on television. In addition, Germany and France co-operate a network called ARTE which presents about 12 to 16 hours of arts programming everyday, 365 days a year. It is broadcast throughout the continent.

    How much classical music programming is available on PBS? I know that tomorrow they will present the Vienna Philharmonic New Years Concert. The message the broadcast sends is questionable, since the orchestra only has 2 women members out of 136 positions, and no one who is visibly a member of a racial “minority.” (The orchestra has a long tradition of excluding both groups.) How ironic that there are so few classical music broadcasts on PBS, and that the most notable is of an overtly racist and sexist orchestra. Why does this not bother PBS?

    As you say, these problems can only be solved over the long-term. So A.C. (or anyone else) how can increased programming of classical music on television be realized? Can our government help? (I just saw Washington described as “Hollywood for ugly people.”

    William Osborne

  61. A.C. Douglas

    How much classical music programming is available on PBS?

    I take it your question was rhetorical as you’ve supplied your own answer (viz., PBS’s classical music programming is just about nil). Even if PBS programmed classical music to the extent they ought to be expected to do, PBS is not the answer either. PBS does NOT reach the proles because the proles care not a whit for PBS even though over the past decade or so PBS has been shamelessly pandering to the proles in order to increase viewership. We need the commercial networks, both cable and broadcast, to get with the program. How that, in real, practical terms, might be accomplished is, as I’ve already noted, far beyond my experience or expertise to even outline. I know only that it must be accomplished in order for classical music to be sold to the young in this country as it must be sold in order for classical music to prosper and become a part of the very air children breathe.

    On the business of the Vienna Philharmonic being “racist” and “sexist,” that’s an American view of the matter. It’s neither despite the fact that it doesn’t hire females or non-whites. The VPO is a private organization devoted to its traditions and to its unique sound, and one of those traditions is that its membership is made up of white, European (mostly German and Austrian) males exclusively. It’s the VPO’s right to take that position, and we ought to accept the VPO on its own terms, not expect it to honor ours. Personally, I think the VPO is being rather stupid about it as many of today’s best string players are female, and the fiddle section of the VPO is its weakest. But, as I’ve already noted, it’s the VPO’s right to limit its membership as it sees fit in order to comply with its traditions and maintain its very special and unique sound.


  62. William Osborne

    The Vienna Philharmonic is the same orchestra as the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, which is owned, operated, and entirely funded by the Austrian government. (The Opera Orchestra’s members run the VPO as a private organization on the side.) It is completely against both Austrian and European Union law for publicly funded institutions, such as the State Opera Orchestra/VPO, to discriminate on the basis of race or sex.

    And even if the State Opera were private, that would not make its practices any less racist or sexist. What a strange logic, that an organization would not be sexist or racist, in spite of its practices, because it is “private.”

    So now the plot has really thickened. You argue for the elitism of classical music, and speak of “pandering to the proles” in a way that I think some might find unnecessarily condescending. And now you tell us an orchestra that forbids membership to non-Caucasians, and has only 2 women among its 136 members, is neither racist or sexist because it is “private.”

    This comment is especially bizarre: “…and one of those traditions is that its membership is made up of white, European (mostly German and Austrian) males exclusively. It’s the VPO’s right to take that position,…” You suggest it not only has the right to exclude non-Caucasions and women, but also clearly imply its “right” to maintain a kind of Germanic racial purity. If you had specifically mentioned a special Viennese education in music style, that might make sense, but you actually list racial exclusion as a “right.”

    The appalling correlations here with your concepts of elitism cannot be overlooked. I would like to think you simply misspoke, but you say these things so clearly and bluntly, that doesn’t seem likely. Please explain. I think many readers will be very interested.

    William Osborne

  63. A.C. Douglas

    I very much believe that any private organization such as the VPO has a right to define who it will accept as members, and who not. If it prohibits females, so be it. If it prohibits Blacks, so be it. If it prohibits Jews, so be it (I’m a down-to-the-bone Jew, BTW). You may call that sexist and racist if you wish. I do not. I call that merely stupid.

    And this discussion is way off-message, and should be engaged in elsewhere. This is NOT the forum for such discussion.


  64. Orlando Fiol

    Tomassini makes a compelling argument that classical music demands
    extended and concentrated listening. So, why are so many contemporary
    pieces getting shorter? If concert goers are ultimately supposed to
    cultivate the concentration to take in an entire Mahler symphony or
    Prokofiev piano concerto, what are they being asked to learn to hear in ten or fifteen-minute seemingly obligatory contemporary pieces?
    More importantly, what is the abbreviated average length of the
    contemporary concert offering forcing composers to learn how to do?
    Like it or not, there’s a difference between spinning out a theme
    over thirty minutes versus condensing a three section piece down to
    ten minutes.

    Part of my solution to this conundrum involves selective listening.
    What if concert halls provided a more casual space in some other part
    of the building in which the concert were transmitted via video
    projectors and speakers? People opting for this sort of indirect
    listening could dress casually, bring or buy food and drink, even
    talk with their companions about what they were hearing. There have
    been times when I would have much preferred to comment on a piece as
    it was being performed without worrying about disturbing the silence
    in the hall. This permissive commentary would obviously have to be
    checked at some decibel level, else folks would find it difficult to
    hear the music intently. Which brings me to my next, more radical
    listening option.

    The standard concert involves a collective audience sitting silently
    for the duration of a performance. My second option involves a
    smaller group of people who could come and go, talk quietly during
    the projected performance and make it a more personalized event. My
    third listening option is the most private of all; it involves the
    construction of cubicals meant for individual listeners who would be
    given headphones and some sort of video screen with which to take in
    the performance. Unlike the realtime concert experience and the
    equally realtime casual listening experience I propose, this solitary
    listening option would allow the individual listener to rewind, fast
    forward, skip and repeat portions of movements, movements or entire
    pieces. This would encourage score perusal while listening, quite
    humming to track melodic and contrapuntal developments and other
    beloved introverted activities usually frowned upon at concerts.

    So, why would I choose a concert over a bunch of friends listening to
    a recording or my own late night headphone listening extravaganzas?
    Because the concert is a unique event whose dramatic subtleties might
    never be reproduced on a host of recordings. Why do people tune into
    internet streaming radio stations when they can put together their
    own music mixes? Because there’s a certain charm in relinquishing
    control, in drinking the other guy’s beer, in sitting down to a meal,
    book or piece of music without knowing what’s going to happen next or
    even how familiar pieces will sound in different performances. In the
    past, concerts fulfilled an absolutely practical need, that of
    getting pieces heard by the largest possible audiences that could be
    crammed into a given physical space. With the advent of recordings,
    the physical space could be at once intimate and mobile, as long as
    the clunky phonograph could be moved from house to house. The obvious
    sacrifices with early recordings involved audio fidelity and length.
    But now, I’d likely prefer pristinely recorded audio to the
    acoustical limits of a concert hall.

    If people can take home a chef’s realtime creation to be enjoyed in
    bed with DVD movies or cell phone conversations, why shouldn’t they
    be able to choose how to take in realtime performances? If newspapers
    can now be read online and in print, why must concerts still be taken
    in according to outmoded practices? Let the concert be streamed into
    people’s homes for a fee. Let friends get together at the concert
    hall, rent a room upstairs, have food brought in and dig the sounds
    on a state-of-the-art audio/video transmission. If that’s too
    collective, let them take in the performance in a cubical with
    headphones, monitor and open score. And, for those who still like
    sitting in silence for interminably long pieces, there will always be
    the traditional concert.

  65. A.C. Douglas

    My sentence,

    “You may call that sexist and racist if you wish,”

    should have read:

    “You may call that practice sexist and racist if you wish.”


  66. A.C. Douglas

    Part of my solution to this conundrum involves selective listening. What if concert halls provided a more casual space in some other part of the building in which the concert were transmitted via video projectors and speakers?

    So, you hear no meaningful difference musically between a live vs a recorded classical music performance?

    Emblematic of our present-day culture.


  67. William Osborne

    A.C., you are ignoring that the Vienna State Opera Orchestra is NOT private, and that it is the same orchestra as the Vienna Phiharmonic – minus only the members awaiting tenure. The State Opera Orchestra is public and its actions are against the law.

    Your comments are quite relevant to this thread, because they deeply color your conceptions about elitism and classical music. And I should add, in the most appalling ways. I had always enjoyed your comments, even if eccentric and blustery. What a deep disappointment.

    William Osborne

  68. A.C. Douglas

    A.C., you are ignoring that the Vienna State Opera Orchestra is NOT private, and that it is the same orchestra as the Vienna Phiharmonic – minus only the members awaiting tenure.

    I’m ignoring no such thing. The Vienna State Opera orchestra is part of a public organization. The VPO is a private club formed by members of the Vienna State Opera orchestra. They are two separate and different organizations governed by two separate charters, no matter that members of the public one make up the membership of the private one. That’s what you are willfully ignoring — or rather, willfully attempting to make equivalent — for your personal agenda’s purposes.

    Your comments are quite relevant to this thread, because they deeply color your conceptions about elitism and classical music.

    Neither my comments nor yours in this particular matter are relevant to this thread. And if you imagine my comments on this matter “deeply color [my] conceptions about elitism and classical music,” it’s only for PC types or for zealous social activists such as yourself that they do.

    And that’s my last response to you or anyone else on this matter of “racism” and “sexism”; words that PC types and social activists such as yourself use to tar anyone or anything at odds with your cause.


  69. William Osborne

    It is notable, A.C. that you do not condemn the publicly owned Vienna State Opera Orchestra for illegally excluding women and non-Caucasians. If you believe an orchestra, private or public, has the right to exclude people on the basis of race, then you are a racist.

    I can well imagine that you want to banish discussion of your appalling and ludicrous stance. I am sure that almost everyone here will now read your posts and blog very differently.

    William Osborne

  70. rtanaka

    How ironic — I’ve heard same sorts of arguments thrown by conservatives about discriminating on the basis of race, sexual preference, and gender at the workplace. As long as it is private company, as they claim, then discrimination is OK. Its really things like this that cause me to question the “progressiveness” about people who are supposedly writing things which are “new”.

    Well, at least the discussion is a little bit more honest now. And of course the result of this is that if you’re going to argue that classical music an exclusive enterprise, then that gives you no right to lament classical music’s decline or lack of responsiveness from an audience. If it’s not going to cater to the needs to the public, then public funding should also be pulled. It’s only logical, isn’t it?

    Jazz has been much more successful in the integration of various styles into its medium…it practically absorbed every single genre out there into itself (not just in theory, but in practice) which is a pretty impressive feat considering it’s only been around for a century or so. It’s been relatively successful in “high” and “low” arts (counting its wide reception in Europe), gets plenty of publicity, has been integrated into university curricula, and its ability to be flexible to new contexts provides a lot of mobility in playing in various different settings. On top of this, classical music has for a long time enjoyed the perception of it being a “high class” endeavor, but my experience has been that such an impression has been fading — it seems fairly common now for aristocratic types to use jazz bands for background music instead of classical musicians, so they’re even taking our jobs in that type of arena.

    Maybe we should even consider the possibility that the genre may even overshadow classical music in a few years, if we don’t get our act together. I think it was Darwin who said that “it’s not the strongest nor most intelligent that survives, but those most adaptable to change.” If we don’t get out of our siege-mentality very soon, I’d wager that there will be plenty of other of musicians to take our place.

  71. Colin Holter

    I should have my head examined for jumping back into this debate, but I do want to remind everybody that there’s a difference between what you can do and what you should do. Whether organizations like the Vienna Phil have the right to keep women out is a legal question I don’t have the background to answer (although William Osborne, who seems to have done his homework, doesn’t think they do). I’d imagine that there’s a Supreme Court precedent for problems like this in the context of American jurisprudence; if so, a comparable US orchestra either has the right to exclude women or people of color or doesn’t, and unless we’re wearing a certain expensive and rare variety of black robe, our opinion about that right only matters once every four years at tops.

    Whether they should let women in is horse of a different color, and at the risk of being called out once again by Tanaka for my use of the interpellatory “we,” I think we all agree that they should. I sure hope so.

  72. A.C. Douglas

    Well, at least the discussion is a little bit more honest now. And of course the result of this is that if you’re going to argue that classical music an exclusive enterprise, then that gives you no right to lament classical music’s decline or lack of responsiveness from an audience.

    More honest than what? The discussion here has been nothing but honest from the get-go. And who, pray tell, ever argued here that “classical music [is] an exclusive enterprise”? Such an idea is perfectly imbecile, and no-one here to my knowledge has suggested any such thing.


  73. William Osborne

    According to European Union law, private organizations can discriminate on the basis of race and sex, but it is forbidden for governments to fund such institutions with any sort of subsidy.

    Even though the nominally private Vienna Philharmonic discriminates, it still receives very large subsidies from the Austrian government. From 1962 to 1996 the subsides ranged from 1.8 to 2.7 million Euros. The VPO renounced subsides from 1997 to 2001 in protest against the government’s attempts to force it to accept women. The orchestra began accepting subsides again in 2002. Since then they have received on average about 2.15 million Euros per year (approx. three million dollars.) By funding an orchestra that discriminates against women, the Austrian Federal Government is breaking both its own and European Union law.

    The anti-discrimination laws are quite different in the Untied States. Discrimination is forbidden in almost all private organizations. I do not have the case numbers at hand (nor am I a lawyer,) but the Supreme Court reasoned that many business deals are made in private clubs, and that to exclude minorities would represent an unfair disadvantage. We have thus seen a lot of American businesses (which are private) sued for discrimination, and for which they have had to pay enormous sums for fines and damages. This has also affected organizations such as private colleges and private cultural and social institutions. For the most part, only religious institutions have been able to claim constitutional exceptions to anti-discrimination laws.

    In the USA, questions about whether institutions “can” or “shouldn’t” discriminate are thus largely moot. For the most part, if they shouldn’t, they can’t, which I think makes sense in terms of law against racism and sexism. I hope the Europeans will also eventually move in this direction.

    William Osborne

  74. William Osborne

    I should add one more point. In order to successfully argue that it is private, and does not receive public funding, the Vienna Philharmonic would have to disassociate itself from the Vienna State Opera upon which it depends for pensions, health insurance, rehearsal spaces, parts of its administration and marketing, and countless other things such as even the administration of its auditions. As it is now, the Opera and Philharmonic formations of the orchestra are so intertwined that one can only view the Vienna Philharmonic as nominally private. This would create huge legal problems for them if they were ever prosecuted.


  75. rtanaka

    More honest than what? The discussion here has been nothing but honest from the get-go. And who, pray tell, ever argued here that “classical music [is] an exclusive enterprise”? Such an idea is perfectly imbecile, and no-one here to my knowledge has suggested any such thing.

    You said yourself that private organizations had the right to discriminate if they wanted to. That’s quite a statement — incredibly right-wing, even if its guised under the liberal notion of the autonomy of the individual. Even overlooking the fact that the Vienna is not a purely private entity, the tolerance of such practices simply adds to the perception that classical music is a lofty, largely socially unconcerned medium. You went out of your way to actually defend discrimination, which says a lot. I’m only hoping that it was a quip to provoke a response, because we are in deep trouble if the opinion was indeed a sincere one.

    I have asked many artists in various different mediums of how or what they do justifies itself as something people ought to patronize or support. Some of them have very good answers, although there is a disconcerting number of people who feel that their actions are a justification in itself, even while using public funds to further their own personal careers. This forum is supposedly for people who are interested in writing “new” musics, yet ask them to define what “progressive” means, and they have no answer. Sometimes I question the motivations of people doing art when they are so resistant to the idea of accountability or responsibility…

  76. William Osborne

    It is interesting how in Europe these questions about musical elitism and populism often assume an immediacy difficult for Americans to understand. For instance, at Anton Bruckner Private University (formerly the Bruckner-Konservatorium) in Linz (Hitler’s hometown), not far from Vienna, the big concert hall is named after Wilhelm Jerger, who was director of the conservatory until 1973.

    Jerger, — a contrabassist in the Vienna Philharmonic, and a Lieutenant in the Schutzstaffel (SS) — became the chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic in 1938, when a program was set in motion to “Aryanize” Austrian culture after Austria was made part of Germany through the Anschluss. Classical music was not only defined as elite, but also as an inherent expression of an elite race. It was something for “the people” –albeit an elite people. National Socialism (Nazism) often combined elitism and populism in the same ideology.

    During Jerger’s leadership, six Jewish members of the Vienna Philharmonic died in the concentration camps. Eleven were able to save their lives by timely migration. Nine additional members were found to be of “mixed race” or “contaminated by kinship” (“Versippte”) and reduced to secondary status within the orchestra. Twenty-six “non-Aryans” were thus either murdered, exiled or reduced in status while SS Lieutenant Jerger led the orchestra. Nevertheless, the concert hall at the Anton Bruckner Private University was still named after him.

    In 1942, Wilhelm Jerger wrote a book celebrating the Vienna Philharmonic’s centennial: Erbe und Sendung (Wien: Wiener Verlag Ernst Sopper & Karl Bauer, 1942.) Jerger’s book illustrates his devotion to Nazi ideologies. He includes the genealogies of several prominent father-to-son generations that formed a historical continuum within the ranks of the Philharmonic. Jerger places an asterisk by the name of every “non-Aryan” listed in the tables. Jerger explains that the Aryan stock of these Philharmonic families was so “tough” that the purity of their “blood” was never notably damaged by what racists refer to as “dysgenic influences”:

    “And here it is demonstrated, that in spite of manifold influences of blood from elsewhere, this Mind [Geist] continues to implant itself with great toughness through the ancestral lineage, and that it is often very sharply imprinted. It is understandable, that such an inheritance must beget outstanding musicians, who in their stylistic education and in their experience of orchestral playing are already extraordinarily schooled. This is Mind from Old Mind, which helps tradition and inheritance, a dominant trait [überkommene Anlage] to a special development and fulfillment.” (Page 87, translated from the German)

    Schooling is acknowledged as important, but only in the context of a special “blood” inheritance that transmits “Mind”. This follows National Socialism’s ideology of Ahnenerbe, which asserts that cultural traits are genetically inherited – a view that can be both elitist and populist at the same time. And a view that is still echoed in the Vienna Philharmonic’s policies to this day.

    Jerger also presents a racist portrayal of Gustav Mahler, who became the General Music Director of the Vienna Philharmonic in 1898, replacing Hans Richter, who had led the orchestra for the previous 23 years. (The Vienna Philharmonic refers to the Richter years as its “golden age.”) Mahler’s tenure was troubled in part by a continual pattern of anti-Semitic harassment and he left the orchestra after three years. Using his own words and quoting those of Max Kalbeck (a famous critic at the time,) Jerger draws a comparison of Richter and Mahler that reveals the anti-Semitic, populist, and racially elitist attitudes Mahler confronted:

    “A completely different type of personality entered with Mahler, ‘as there’ — to speak with Max Kalbeck’s vivid words — ‘instead of the tall blond bearded Hun, who placed himself wide and calm before the orchestra like an unshakable, solidly walled tower, there was a gifted shape [begabte Gestalt] balancing over the podium, thin, nervous, and with extraordinarily gangly limbs.’ In fact, a greater contrast was really not possible. There the patriarchal Hans Richter in his stolidity and goodness, and his extremely hearty and collegial solidarity with the orchestra, and here Gustav Mahler, oriented to the new objectivity [neue Sachlichkeit] — nervous, hasty, scatty, intellectualish [sic]-the music a pure matter of his overbred intellect.” (Page 57, translated from the German)

    Racist views are apparent in the language (“intellectualish,” “overbred,” “new objectivity” (a new aesthetic associated with Jews), “gangly limbs,” “scatty” vs. “blond,” “stolid,” and so on). They reflect anti-Semitism and National Socialist aesthetics. The transparent sub-text is one of chauvinistic masculinity and genetic superiority. The text also illustrates how an ethos of elitism in music can evolve to populist forms of racism that describe a music as belonging to “a people.” We see this hybrid elitist/populist view to this day in the Vienna Philharmonic’s exclusion of non-Caucasians. There is little objection to the orchestra’s ideologies in Austria, because “the people” discretely see it as an expression of their own superiority.

    Linz is by no means the only European conservatory whose buildings bring into focus the immediacy of history and ideology. In Munich, the Musikhochschule is housed in Hitler’s personal office building. It was called the Führerbau, and was designed by Paul Ludwig Troost, the same architect who designed Munich’s Haus der Kunst.”

    The Fuehrerbau is considered to be one of the most perfect stylizations of Nazi architecture still in existence. A lot of people get the creeps just walking into the place. There are stories still in circulation that people were tortured in the basement where the student cafeteria now is. Much of Munich was destroyed by Allied bombing, but, ironically, the Führerbau survived almost unscratched.

    For people in the former East Block, these questions of history and the exploitation of art by an elite in the name of “the people” are even more recent and immediate. These histories illustrate why Europeans cannot approach questions of elitism and populism in music as a merely intellectual exercise. It is a question they still live with their lives.

    Hapy New Year!

    William Osborne

  77. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Orlando’s comment above about length was important.

    What I call the “American commission” (10 minutes, inexpensive to buy and rehearse, easily accessible content) has debilitated contemporary composition in concert.

    There are three strong effects.

    The first effect is that, save for new-music ensembles and their concerts or the occasional dedicated program, the reduction in major venues of the artform’s presence has been devastating to how composers are permitted to think. Artists may develop their ideas, but without opportunity to present them in a critical forum (i.e., with performers and audience), those ideas may not be fully born. Teachers are not enough. It is the real air that has the strongest impact. And when that concert ‘air time’ is limited to seven or nine or ten minutes, ideas must be compressed or even compromised.

    I’m not talking about minimalism and its heritage, which can be spun out over time, or opera, which hangs all sorts of clothes on the dummy, but rather the concert experience that is at the (remaining small) heart of classical/nonpop. If the opportunity presented is short, composers anxious for opportunities will accept the limitation, and write to it.

    This comment is also about the concert experience, not the composers who buy audio calling cards through experienced Eastern European orchestras or highly talented regional American orchestras. For the wealthy, grant-driven or well-employed/endowed composer, such calling cards are possible — for whatever they’re worth. (For me they’re only about possibilities.)

    The second strong effect is perception. “They don’t write them like they used to” — meaning the iconic masterworks of the past — is because they may not, not because they cannot (or could not, depending on the strength of the first effect). This is a circular situation that is manifested as an audience distrust of new classical/nonpop, that it is unable to express more profound ideas (or emotions, or whatever the audience expects from their concert experiences). It permeates the performance, presentation, and management of concerts.

    The third strong effect is also positive: crystallizing ideas into small forms that can (read: hope to) actually compete for attention with commercial music, and press the composers into simultaneous brevity and depth. Many composers have internalized the notion that short music is trivial — oh, it won’t be said often out loud, but the idea of significance is associated with length.

    I’ve had the good fortune of having several large and long pieces performed. The gratification alone is sweet, but experiencing the audience’s experience, so to speak, is both compelling and humbling. A hall full of people is pulling at the music, wanting it, hoping it will matter to them, entertain them, wishing it to overflow their spirits in some way. That sense of commitment is not easily dismissed.

    Only one orchestral composition of mine was ever placed as the featured (i.e., final) piece on a concert of otherwise old masterworks. It was 25 minutes of, oh, how to describe it, spectral Sibelius. :) — intertwined, delicate, sonically complex, and largely uncompromising. At the end, the standing-room-only crowd on a hot summer night was utterly still for perhaps ten seconds, and then roared. The music had succeeded on its surface, underneath, in structure and in sensibility.

    On the other hand, in the past year’s project (it’s over!), I also learned how to craft music for instruments I’d never or rarely used before (accordion, ukulele, jew’s harp, tenor guitar, mandocello, theremin, clavichord, natural horns) as well as to engage ideas for specific times and lengths (“the hardest piano piece possible in 30 seconds” was one). This project had engaged the trust of performers (where most commissions came from) and perhaps, just perhaps, can see that communicated to audiences.

    What I’m saying in this long post is that the rupture with traditional audiences is as much trust in our ability as it is a generalized antipathy toward new classical/nonpop. Presentational gimmicks and on-stage lectures won’t fix it. Patience, artistic commitment and rebuilt trust will.


  78. rudenste

    Happy New Year all.

    I’m sorry the only response to my “Classies” idea was an outraged diatribe about how we shouldn’t “pander to the proles”. As William Osborne pointed out, that attitude is what gives a bit of truth to the old “elitist” charge and conjures up images of sneering aristocrats gingerly stepping over the dead bodies of their serfs as they wend their way to high tea. True, comprehending classical music requires knowledge and taste, but, in this age of widespread education you don’t have to be part of the wealthy elite to acquire that and, paradoxically, the wealthy elite has pretty much abandoned it.

    I think that classical music really does have to get in step with modern times; I think it is time to experiment with new ways to involve people, young and old, in our music. Classical music does, in presentation, often have a stuffiness about it that I don’t like. From the idiotic penguin suits at the opera to the ridiculous stiffness of many conductors and performers…you can see how the manners of past generations of titled gentry has affected performance and it’s high time to try new things…not for purposes of pandering to the musically illiterate, but for the sake of change and progress. There are many ways to make concerts less stuffy short of imitating rock concerts.

    The previous post asserts that instead of looking for gimmicks we should simply proceed with the hard work of earning the trust of the audience. While that sounds perfectly nice, it sidesteps the fact that most classical music listeners haven’t a clue that we exist and thus we cannot earn their trust because we cannot reach them.

    The fact is that methods of presenting things to the attention of people has undergone a huge change over the last century and these are almost never used in regards to classical music in an effective way. In bygone days we had the NBC Symphony Orchestra in prime time. How nice it would be to have it back…what a step forward that would be. But wait, what would that show look like? Cameras roll on a conductor striding stiffly to the podium, applause, he raises the baton and the orchestra starts playing. A concert on television. How original. How boring. Yet that’s how concerts are presented on Public Television to this day. I’m sure I could write the script of a really interesting television series involving an orchestra that would not in any way compromise the quality of classical music. And it is possible, in these times, to have an awards show for classical music composers and performers that is interesting and information and extremely entertaining. I hope composers haven’t been so ground down by the commercial forces of evil that they can’t even contemplate the idea of reaching out to the classical music public. As I mentioned in my article, the Norman Lear Institute’s poll shows that most music listeners listen to classical music. If that is so, then why are we acting like a persecuted little sect?

  79. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Roger, that hard work doesn’t exclude your idea, which I don’t think is a gimmick at all. So I definitely wasn’t talking about you.

    In fact, I’ve often been accused of gimmicks, from having urban street concerts starting in 1970 and “Battles of the Synthesizers” starting in 1973, directing the first three Delaware Valley Festivals of the Avant-Garde in from 1974-78 (that drew huge crowds in working public spaces), right up through Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar from 1995-2005 (where David Gunn and I sat with composers and broadcast to an enthusiastic lay audience every Saturday for ten years) and the Ought-One Festival of NonPop in 2001 (“The Woodstock of NonPop”) with 37 concerts in one weekend. Even my “We Are All Mozart” project last year was called a gimmick because I wanted to raise the visibility of composers as wild & crazy folks with lots to say (other than NMBx and one Dutch magazine, the music media pretty much boycotted the idea). I have written to billionaires trying to interest them in a whole new approach to classical/nonpop that engages their enthusiasm — the Richard Branson / Oprah Winfrey approach to goosing nonpop’s visiblity and credibility with some of methods you propose (one of those letters is here).

    Most people think those are gimmicks, but they are what I consider patience, artistic commitment, and rebuilding trust. You make sure folks know about stuff, give them a reason to come to it, and reward them for being there with a fantastic time.

    Your idea of “The Classies” is one angle of that. I love it.


  80. rtanaka

    Nice post, Roger.

    As you said, classical music has largely lost the attention of even the “elite” classes in this country — many of them have turned to other mediums in order to get their musical fixes as this point. I’m not naive enough to believe that New Music can appeal to everyone, but I do think that we are missing out on a very large, well-informed audience base. It’s a fairly typical response to blame the audiences whenever there is a lack of reception, but I do think that a lot of the problems are internal.

    I think there is a place for music in academia, and I still do believe that higher education is a very noble calling. But there’s been a lot of rampant, for a lack of a polite term, nonsense, that has been circulating the academies and institutions, although I won’t mention any specific names. A good read on the subject can be found in the book Fashionable Nonesense: Postmodern Intellectual’s Abuse of Science, written in part by Alan Sokal, the initiator of the Sokal Affair. And this is really only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how we’re perceived among non-musicians, even among the highly educated. Even if you don’t agree with Sokal’s claims, I find it exceedingly rare to find people who are willing to honestly talk about such matters.

    At the same time there is the very strong anti-commercial attitude imbedded within modernist ideologies (which seems to be norm for most compositional programs these days) forbids people from writing accessible works because its seen as a form of “pandering”. At times it seems like there is even an encouragement to scandalize or offend the public when presenting works to the general public, as a manifestation of this ideology.

    So given its lack of reception both among intellectuals and the general public, it seems that classical new music is doomed to failure right from the start. Yet, this is what typically gets taught in the schools and the vast majority of composers and musicians get left stranded after graduation by a system largely uncaring of the well-being of its graduates. I can only imagine that things will get worse unless there is a drastic change in approach by both the academy and the institution.

  81. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Roger wants us to step up to the plate.

    What about you, Roger? You dismiss PBS-style directing. So where is that script you say you could write? How about an excerpt of how you’d do it?

    And Ryan, where are some sample solutions? You imagine things getting worse and lament in generalities. How about something specific to fix the situation?

    There’s a lot of talking and writing — and over 80 posts on this topic — but so far I see actual actions having been taken and described by just two or three people. Everyone does seem to feel the new nonpop situation is broken. But beyond saying “I compose” or “I perform”, what kinds of committed actions have you taken and perhaps even sacrifices have you made to change it for the better?


  82. rtanaka

    Well, the solutions have already been presented in this thread (and in other places) a number of times:

    1) A greater emphasis and support for music education.

    2) Get over the reactionary attitudes toward commercial art, and directly compete with popular culture rather than trying to avoid it. (What Roger is probably referring to as “modernizing” classical music, I think.)

    3) Greater transparency and accountability. This is especially important in institutions which are receiving government funding, because by definition, it should be a public good and information should be clearly available to everyone.

    4) Increase the level of rigor in the the academies. As the Sokal Affair shows, there is a general disdain for the humanities in general by the scientific community. I’ve read a lot of theory texts that look like science reports, which there is nothing wrong in itself, but they frankly display not even a basic understanding of scientific theories and how the scientific method works. As the article above shows, lot of this comes from the uncritical acceptance of post-Enlightenment values that de-emphasize logic and empirical facts in the name of subjectivity. Personally I don’t think this is helping classical music at all because it makes us look more aloof than we already are.

    These proposals are simple enough…I don’t believe that the solutions are all that complex, but finding people who are actually interested in doing something different will probably be a challenge. One thing I know for sure, is that waiting around for the masses to “come to their senses” never really works. Change starts from within.

  83. rtanaka

    Oh, as far as my personal “action” goes, you can check out my c.v. or my website, and I think what I’ve done speaks louder than anything that could be said here. I’m also starting to experiment with ideas like giving online lessons and using Google AdSense to generate some revenue for myself. Just started to get into it so haven’t gotten much success yet, but I’m going to try to have everything neatly set up by the time we release a CD next year with the trio I play in.

    When I decided to go into improvisation I pretty much had to abandon a professional career in Horn, as well as the doctoral composition -> composition professor route. Apparently my skills don’t really apply anywhere in the usual places, so I’m basically forced to try to carve my own niche at this point. But if you give me a keyboard I can immediately demonstrate what I’ve done over the last few years as a musician…the problem is, in classical music, there aren’t too many places who accept people on these kinds of terms. I know I’m not the only one, too — there are a lot of really good improvisers out there with no avenue to showcase their abilities, which is kind of a shame.

  84. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz


    These are generalities — wishlists, really.

    Let’s just take #1. “A greater emphasis and support for music education.”

    I wish for that, too.

    But how would you do that? Or better, how will you do that? Will you visit your school board and make the case at budget time? Go into the teacher training college nearby and work with the instructors? Prepare a solid general curriculum that fits within a typical school’s budget? Then take, perhaps, six years of your life to teach in an elementary school, carrying a class from first through sixth grade? Teach kids who can hardly read to compose and sing and play?


  85. philmusic

    How about us composers refusing to dancing to the tune of “pundits” who masquerade as artistic leaders?

    Phil Fried

  86. philmusic

    to tense, two tense?–anyway
    How about us composers refusing to dance to the tune of “pundits” who masquerade as artistic leaders?

  87. Chris Becker

    Maybe, as composers, we need to just be a little more unconditionally supportive of each others activities, aesthetics and dreams instead of trying to flame each other 24/7?

    Ryan, dream big man. Come to NYC sometime and we’ll jam.

    One love.

  88. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Gosh, Chris, other than a intenseness between William and A.C., I haven’t read any flames here.

    Group hug, then? That’ll certainly change the minds of the Bernard Hollands out there as well as the ever-reluctant audience, right?

    Sorry to be a little cynical, but weren’t we actually getting to some nuts & bolts suggested by Orlando and Roger? I don’t think that’s too scary, do you? Our “big dreams” can handle a little vetting. Or can’t they? What did Holland say — “composers sharing inside jokes and private messages”?


  89. rtanaka

    Dennis, those are good questions that I had wished I asked myself earlier. The practicalities involved in changing things are very difficult.

    My current job is with the Open Content Alliance Project where we’re digitizing books which have and are about to run out of copyright this year. It’s a general-book project, but it does include a number of music books as well, which hopefully will be made available to the public once its done. So I think I can say that I’m doing something, even if its a very small gesture in the bigger scheme of things.

    But there’s no way that I can do this alone — in order to improve our image musicians from all walks of the medium will have to make an effort to really make any significant difference. But there are clearly those within the medium who have no interest in such things — sometimes its explicit, sometimes its implicit — but personally I think they are shooting themselves (and the rest of us) in the foot. They also remind me a lot of the bad teachers I had as a student, those who were clearly not interested in education but became teachers anyway. Very uninspirational all around.

    We’ll all do our own things in our own time, but as far as dialogue here is concerned, the only thing I can do is maybe suggest a more sympathetic attitude toward the audience, for those who find it impossible to respect them. In order to do this, there needs to be an active individual effort to actually try to understand the sorts of people we’re trying to reach out to. If not, whatever results or “progress” that emerges from the process will only be abstract and probably never leave the realm of a self-induced placebo.

  90. Chris Becker

    Dennis, if you put Ryan’s comments into the context of his non-blogging existence (he did refer you to his website and CV) I think the “dreams” you are “vetting” end up carrying a little more weight. He’s not speaking in the abstract. He’s a serious, thoughtful artist who like all of us considers these larger issues i.e. the contemporary composers’ relationship to the U.S. audience. He’s also (unlike many people who get into these debates) an active performer, composer and improviser.

    You don’t strike me as cynical at all. If you were cynical, you probably wouldn’t be trying to create a conversation about these topics online with fellow composers. This medium leaves a lot to be desired, and it takes some effort to keep it out of the realm of “flaming.”

    Great job. But I think you were a little reactive with Ryan. And looking over all these posts I thought I might remind everyone here that we’re all kind of in the same boat. And maybe one issue here is that we forget that fact?

  91. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Ryan and Chris, yes, I have no doubt at all about the dedication and imagination and high level of consideration of the composers here.

    My irritating pressure has been to ‘concretize’ how we deal with the dreams. That isn’t to put Ryan or anyone on the spot about themselves, but rather pressure or encourage them to lead the way through their practices.

    I don’t put stuff into my posts to say, hey, looka what I done. Instead it’s to suggest ways of putting desire into action. They’re my ways, and others may say yuck or yum. But lamenting our state just feeds the Hollands and reinforces audience perception. Roger wants drama and hype, but ACD wants perception of quality (I represent them too briefly). Each has merit, but they all stand or fall on their implementation.

    Indeed, Ryan’s CV is tremendous — I’ve seen it before when we spoke off-forum about horn music. But what from his expansive document applies to solving the composer-vs.-audience issue that Frank set out nearly 100 posts ago? Because Ryan is so articulate, I’m hunting something that eventually appeared in his post above: “an active individual effort to actually try to understand the sorts of people we’re trying to reach out to.” An active individual effort, which crystallizes the dream-generalities from earlier … and see how that phrase is not addressed in his four points. Yet ultimately there it is.


  92. rtanaka

    An active individual effort, which crystallizes the dream-generalities from earlier … and see how that phrase is not addressed in his four points. Yet ultimately there it is.

    Yes, I didn’t want to discount the idea of individual effort, but I think that we are, for better or worse, all in this thing together. I don’t really see myself being in competition with my neighbor, because a good experience at a concert usually leads to an interest in attending more concerts of that variety. On the other hand, negative experiences can do the same in the other direction. I think a serious musician needs to have a sense of responsibility toward the performance, and see that their actions have consequences beyond its immediate context.

    I don’t think you’re being particularly cynical, and your questions are very fair. Sometimes you gotta stop talking and “Just Do It ™”. Mistakes will be made, but its not a wasted effort if you manage to learn something from them. I think I pretty much found what I want to do with myself, but now I just have to figure out how to get paid for it, which might take a while.

    Chris, I might take up on your offer some day…haven’t been to NY in a while.

  93. William Osborne

    Solutions? I think education is essential for creating an appreciation of classical music. Music education could also help end the image of classical music as elitist. Kids learn to love music by making music. Music appreciation classes alone don’t work well. It is important to tell children about music and have them listen to recordings, but the ultimate goal of music appreciation classes should be to get as many kids as possible into school bands, orchestras, and choirs. People who have been through these programs invariably have a fuller appreciation of music, regardless of how their musical tastes ultimately develop.

    Unfortunately, our educational system is permeated with extreme forms of elitism that affect classical music. There is, for example, an article in the NYT today about the Colburn School in Los Angeles. It stresses the school’s elite aspirations. It has such a huge endowment for its 96 students that, like the Curtis Institute, they do not pay tuition. The article stresses how the Colburn School wants to be as elite as Curits. See the article here:

    Naturally, when wealthy people like Colburn give huge fortunes for cultural institutions, they want a star in their crown. Our cultural institutions are more often than not, named after wealthy whites, and serve as memorials. Unfortunately, this mausoleum type of function, creates a focus on status, rarity, and elitism that is often detrimental.

    This is not to deny the value of educational excellence, but to point out the effects of an excessive elitism on education. A genuinely cultured society does not primarily need 96 Colburn thoroughbreds for a few elite and rare institutions, but rather an adequate supply of well-trained musicians who can make classical music available to a wide demographic in our society.

    Unfortunately, wealthy whites are not often interested in advancing music education through the wide demographic of our public schools, which is where the real difference could be made in strengthening the position of classical music in our country. They prefer elite, status-ridden institutions across the street from Disney Hall in order to immortalize their names. How ironic that the far more democratic system in impoverished Venezuela produced the future GMD of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

    There is a span of 1500 miles between the San Francisco and the Houston Operas with little in between. And the same for the 1000 miles between Houston and Chicago. Same story for the 800 miles between Chicago and New York City. And even those houses only have seasons ranging from five to seven months. Is that supposed to be adequate for a country of 300 million people?

    The only way we will ever bring classical music to an adequately wide demographic is through public funding that will allow the performing arts a decent existence in all of our cities. ALL other industrial countries do this, so why can’t we? Who is standing in the way, and why? We will never shake the elitist character of classical music until we get rid of our feudalistic system of funding by wealthy. Or should I make that wealthy whites?

    William Osborne

  94. Somebody

    The idea of public funding is vastly different from the actual implementation of public funding. This is the crux of the matter. The NEA proclaims to fund the arts, but the NEA only funds artists with political connections – moms and dads with big pockets. Recently a friend of mine pointed me to the United States Senates web site. On the web site you can query a database of lobbyists, their activity, and their clients. The American Symphony Orchestra league appears to be giving money to the major orchestras to pay for lobbying activity in Congress, the White House and the NEA. You really cannot call this public funding anymore. It is more along the lines of corporate socialization. Tax the poor and middle class so the wealthy elite can continue their status. And, one can only imagine what a lobbyist is doing with lawmakers, executive staff, and NEA staffers. Perhaps a free lunch and a kiss on the cheek? Or, handing our concert tickets?

    Also, this years NEA award winners proves a case for corporate socialization. A small new music group in Philadelphia, Network for New Music was given a grant. Careful inspection of how they got the grant reveals that Network for New Music chose to play one of the judge’s music on a concert, a Mr. Mumford. I wouldn’t call this public funding, I would call this political funding. Public funding implies that all composers are granted equal access to opportunity. Roger, in light of what actually happens in the USA in the name of public funding, I think you need a different answer.

  95. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    William writes, The only way we will ever bring classical music to an adequately wide demographic is through public funding that will allow the performing arts a decent existence in all of our cities. ALL other industrial countries do this, so why can’t we? Who is standing in the way, and why? We will never shake the elitist character of classical music until we get rid of our feudalistic system of funding by wealthy. Or should I make that wealthy whites?

    I agree with this, but with the American system based on Mahagonny-style elitism, changing what is effectively a systemic problem ain’t coming soon. There’s almost no money, and the little there is these days is pretty much going to craft-style music. I was speaking to a long-time presenter just a few days ago, and that’s the deal, even in the once-adventurous New York State Council. I won’t live to see any change to arts economics in the U.S., unless composition becomes the bedrock of the marching band for the Saturday afternoon football games.

    But change can be made to happen upward from the local school — William’s “1500 miles between the San Francisco and the Houston Operas,” the “1000 miles between Houston and Chicago” and the “800 miles between Chicago and New York City.” How many composers and performers of new classical/nonpop are there in the U.S. living in those areas? How many are willing to take the time to get teaching certificates, accept the low wages of a classroom teacher or the no wages of a volunteer, and put several relentless years into the classroom?

    What if our composers and performers actually brought students from K-6 and 7-12 into an awareness through composition and performance of the kids’ own works? What if each composer and new music performer simply and unreservedly committed six years to teaching in a public school, with all the pressures and demands to be creative that are placed on your average school teacher every single day? Who here would do that? Which composers & performers do you know who would do that? Not occasional residencies or private lessons or symphonic hit-and-run presentations, but teaching and threading of new classical/nonpop ideas into the weave of music education day after day, and where the days aren’t paid for, volunteering that time? What would the effect be on consciousness of new classical/nonpop, and its ultimate social meaningfulness? What if it happened in not one school, but with our thousands of composers and performers, in every school?

    It would mean taking a cut in pay, being pushed away from the 24-hour life of performer or composer, and meeting unceasing demands from administation, other teachers, and the kids themselves. It would mean being articulate and flexible every second, knowing material, learning how to collaborate with a six-year-old or engage a special student’s abilities.

    And what if, in all those shining cities-on-the-hills that demarcate the edges of William’s U.S. cultural wilderness, the presenters decided to create the Year of New Music, where for twelve months every ensemble played nothing but recently composed work? From the symphony and opera on down to the early music ensemble that played from the thousands of new pieces for early instruments? Which presenter here would stand up for that?

    All of the above require putting oneself on the line — here I stand, and this is what I will do. Ryan speaks in teamwork, cooperative terms, but as the hype of crowdsourcing fades, the lack of innovation from groups becomes clearer. Leadership and vision are part of our individual creative processes. Even Jaron Lanier recently wrote about it in Discover. (And, speaking of the U.S., it’s worth re-reading the last fourteen words of the Declaration of Independence — teamwork if you will, but based on individual, complete and unreserved commitment.)

    And the secondary effects can be more awareness. Assuming Craig is correct above, could such nepotistic circumstances dominate in a society not only aware of but also involved the mechanism of creative arts?


  96. William Osborne

    I would like to respond to Denis’ post later when I have a moment. In the meantime, here is a new, and very gendered concept for widening the public for
    classical music. And one that would certainly erode its elitist image. The
    London Concert Orchestra will play popular classics on a worldwide tour
    while animated Barbie films are screened above them. There is an article about the project in the London Times that discusses the reactions of
    children and parents here.

    From the article: “‘The most critical step in keeping the arts alive is
    exposure,’ says [the organizer] who inaugurated the concerts after being
    approached by Mattel, the doll’s maker, to write scores for Barbie films.
    ‘There are kids growing up not knowing what it’s like to see a ballet or
    hear the transcending power of a symphony orchestra.'”

    I asked my trombonist wife about that project and elitism in classical music. She
    said, “Classical music is the sound track for being rich.” I guess Barbie
    concerts would add a public outside of classical music’s core demographic.
    I wonder if there is a trombone-playing Barbie doll? Hmm. Well, maybe not.

    William Osborne

  97. William Osborne

    You are right, Denis. During our lives, we will probably not see a scale of public funding in America like Europeans have, but we need to start somewhere. A first step is to discuss the issue and try to create a stronger sense of advocacy among artists themselves. Even most artists do not realize how isolated, radical, and inadequate the American private funding system is. Nor do they realize how much better the situation is in almost all other industrial countries.

    This problem goes far beyond the arts. Our country has lost its sense of working together for the common good. The American Society of Civil Engineers
    estimates that government should be spending $320 billion a year over the next five years — double the current outlay — just to bring our dilapidated communal infrastructures such as roads, bridges, power lines, and water systems up to par. Due to this neglect we have seen things like an Interstate bridge collapse in Minneapolis, and even seen a major city entirely destroyed because its levees were not adequate to protect it form a storm that most knew would eventually come.

    And there are changes that could be made even in the ridiculous private funding system we already have. Why do the rich patrons of the arts so often ignore music education and want to support something rare, elitist, and high-status? The rich view the performing arts as something like “rare collectibles.” Classical music is defined as a luxury – an indulgence of the wealthy. Training children in music is overlooked because it is low-status.

    The Gates Foundation, by contrast, has spent millions on the mundane work of supplying low income schools with computers and improving science education. (There is, of course, a lot of self-interest. I doubt they are giving out much money for Macs, but there is still a worthy altruism to their efforts.)

    So why aren’t wealthy patrons creating programs to increase music education in our schools? Among other things, the money could be used to hire more teachers. One answer, of course, is that they are not even giving enough to keep the arts going, much less arts education. Private funding doesn’t work. We need to rediscover our sense of the common good and let its principles guide our government. As artists, we can be among the first to reawaken those sensibilities.

    William Osborne

  98. rtanaka

    A lot of the problems, like Dennis said, is the simple lack of funding. We’re currently wasting a lot of money on a pointless war, and we’re not the only one hurting in terms of money. The arts is always the first to go whenever times get rough. I’ve only been out of school for 8 months and I’ve already heard a few stories of my friends losing teaching jobs at schools! It’s not a very good time all around.

    I’m at least somewhat hopeful that 2008 will be a different year than the previous few decades. The likely winner of the presidential campaign (Obama or Hillary at this point, although even Edwards will be a good candidate against corporate money….) will be a symbol of progress in the midst of backwards politics over the last few decades. I won’t be holding my breath, but maybe something positive is about to happen over the next few years.

    Political effect is something that results from a shift in group consciousness. It can really come from all sides of the walk — through publications such as this site, individual patronage, individual performances, education at various levels, grassroots campaigning…whether the source is individual or collective, it can have a overall effect on the climate if everybody chips in. But there has to at least be, at least somewhere at the back of one’s mind, to take the issue seriously and make an individual contribution to the cause.

    I agree with William’s idea of broad funding, although I think it has already been said before a number of times. We really don’t need “superstars” in this country anymore — that was a bygone period that was a result of the world attempting to nationalize its media infrastructures. The disappearance of the “middle-class” is a hot-topic issue in politics as well, so it might be a good time to be talking about such things in music too.

    There is also the problem of many musicians seeing classical music as a source of nothing but stress — the system is set up so that if you don’t make it as part of the “chosen ones” then you are deemed an inferior being. Their behavior at times, is directly affected by this — those who lack the ability to be critical or distance themselves from such practices sometimes will play right into the role of this sort of dominant-dominated relationship, which runs directly against the American ideal. Though they may be more intelligent on average, classical musicians tend to have very bad self-esteems…and there is definitely a lack of just plain ol’ having fun with music, especially as you get into the professional level. I don’t think you can really blame people for not attending those technically precise but largely heartless performances…I’ve been confided that some of the world-class performers in the world actually hate playing music, and see it nothing more than a day job. Again, something has to change internally as well — the logistics of it won’t amount to much if the product itself doesn’t inspire.

    I’ve read a book a while ago (Elliott Carter reader, I think?) where one of the performers of modern music pointed to the audience and literally said, “that is our enemy”. No doubt there are still many who would think that this is a noble statement, perhaps “true” in some way. But it’s completely unproductive since it has lead to the perceived devaluement of our medium. I don’t think a lot of people realize how obvious it is when artists harbor ill-intentions — it’s reflected the work, their actions, and ultimately in the response of the audience. People say all kinds of things in words, but the truth comes out in art.

  99. Somebody

    I didn’t mean to address my last posting to “Roger”, but to William. I do mean to say that public funding is not the answer, especially in the USA in the year 2008 and probably for the next two decades. Not until 90 percent of the US public actually votes, and drops its love affair with car, gas, healthcare, and drug selling presidents. All funding would have to stop for about a decade, and then start fresh.

    You-all are also missing the point of reverse elitism. Hollywood spends a good time playing classical music in the background with fumbling snobs who play the bad-guy-rich-person. Ya, know movies like Caddy Shack. Most pop music hounds are elitist also. The point is moot when the Philadelphia Orchestra has a lobbyist in DC. Who cares who goes to the damn concerts, they have lobbyists. An artist with a lobbyist, now that is American.

    And, who is Nilda Sanchez. She or he emails me a nasty email every time I post a nasty post. She didn’t like the Mumford stuff. I guess I should put a block on my account.

  100. William Osborne

    Yes, Craig, I think there would be an enormous risk of corruption if a better funded program used the NEA as a model. I think the NEA should only function as a conduit for sending funds to state and municipal governments. They too would probably fall victim to cronyism and such, but the decentralization would limit the effects. Artists would also have alternatives, because they could apply for programs, festivals, events, etc. in other cities and states. This is all a very long-term project.

    There’s an interesting article about the NEA in the

    Louisville Courier-Journal.

    He also weighs in on the “elitism” question. Here are a couple excerpts:

    “I’m sure there are still plenty of citizens who wish the endowment would just go away, people who declare that government has no business funding art, that the NEA and its recipients are “elitists,” etc., etc. It’s a tired litany of know-nothingism, rooted in distrust of artistic expression that dares to confront, confound and, yes, to offend.”

    And he adds: “Meanwhile, allies of the endowment and public funding of the arts must keep a close watch on the evolving political landscape. Arts policy may not be as white-hot-relevant as combating al-Qaida and other terrorists, but it remains intrinsic to the peculiar notion that Americans ought to be free to express themselves through culture, and that a government that helps fund such expression is an enlightened government.

    “As the presidential campaign season pushes forward through New Hampshire and beyond, candidates would do well to share that enlightenment. It’s not elitism. It’s patriotism.”

    It’s good to see that journalists are beginning to voice such views.

    William Osborne

  101. Somebody

    I feel the only real solution is music education. Yet, it must be music education, not music history education. When the public is guided to comprehend music and to create it independently, then and only then will the public be free from being sheep-like-herded consumers. By herded I mean the public is told what to buy, then onward to building celebrity status. The public doesn’t really understand music they just understand the important people.

    Speaking of celebrity status, once againg the Higdon machine cranked out another media spot in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The article was shear babble, words like “blue-chip”, “award”, “industry”, “dude”, and yes the biggest music word in the Philadelphia area, “Curtis”. The funniest or most revealing jab was her upset with Lang Lang not playing her piano concerto. Jeez, I wonder why he didn’t play it? I can’t say I don’t know why she is getting all this attention anymore, because I know she is a board director of the American Symphony Orchestra League.

  102. William Osborne

    I found the article

    in the Inquirer about Jennifer’s upcoming premiere very interesting. I think it also fits well with this discussion, since the work in question, “Concert 4-3”, is for orchestra and blue-grass trio. I suppose you can’t get more populist than that. The article also points out that Jennifer “recently became America’s most often-played living composer…”

    Congratulations, Jennifer.

    William Osborne

  103. Frank J. Oteri

    Saturday’s edition of the Toronto Star features an article by Peter Goddard which describes the just-released findings of an international study on cultural consumption completed in 2007 by researchers based at Oxford University. (This article is the top link in ArtsJournal today.) According to the findings of the study, the notion of a cultural elite is no longer statistically viable, but rather the populations of nations around the world divide into one of four categories—univores, omnivores, paucivores, and inactives—and that those four categories have correlation no correlation with class.

    So far, I have not been able to track down the actual study to be able to read their findings firsthand and then share them here, but there is a PDF of an earlier (2005) study, limited to England, conducted by the same research team (Tak Wing Chan and John H. Goldthorpe) that you can read here.

  104. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    This must be a little cash cow for these researchers. There’s also a 2006 study by them on the same topic, their pay version released April 2007, and this latest (which I can’t find either).


  105. Frank J. Oteri

    correlation/no correlation
    Please note the corrected erratum in my previous response; it makes a world of difference. I type less glibly than I speak or think which makes electronically-based communication much more effective when there’s time to copy edit it, alas…. Sorry.

  106. William Osborne

    I haven’t read the study Frank mentions either, but the report about it in the paper almost seems to border on foolishness. For example, regarding the lack of appreciation for the high arts, one of the researchers is quoted as saying: “’Better education does little to change this bleak picture. There is a sizeable number of people in this group who don’t participate’ in the elite arts.’”

    Education in what? We now have a common situation where people can be highly educated, but poorly educated in the arts. Without more precise definitions of terms such as “education” we don’t really know what the research indicates, or what the authors are saying.

    And concerning class, it seems the study would have to consider the extremely high prices of tickets. Orchestra level seats at the San Francisco Opera range from $275 to $295. At the Met they range from $220 to $375. A couple would pay double those prices. In NYC, those from in town have to pay Manhattan rents, and those from out of town will likely need a Manhattan hotel. A night at the opera would range from around $600 to $1500. And that is assuming you could get a ticket. Most of the best seats goes to subscribers who get priority seating because they are donors. Tell me class doesn’t matter.

    William Osborne

  107. pgblu

    If wee could all have the pwoer to edit our own pfosts took, that would be grate. I always kcik myself when I see I’ve made a tpoye.

    Incidentally, here is an already-running discussion of the Oxford findings. Note that it’s from a UK perspective, but I think it’s still rather informative. Lots of links for further reading at the bottom (“Click here to explore further”).

    A balm to all practitioners being accused of elitism, (especially if falsely so).

  108. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    In this morning’s email:

    On January 1, 2008, Gaudeamus will merge in a single large music institute in which classical, contemporary, jazz and pop music will all be incorporated. The name of the new organization is Music Center the Netherlands (MCN). Besides Gaudeamus, the other merging partners are Donemus, ‘De Kamervraag’, the combined jazz organizations and the Dutch Rock and Pop Institute.


  109. William Osborne

    About three weeks ago there was an article in the New Zealand Herold about the Oxford study that I think provides a better summation. (In fact, I gave the URL for the Herold article on Dec. 21 in the “Surf’s Up” blog written by Teresa.) It stresses a different aspect of the study, which finds that classical music is still used as an expression of status, but that status in contemporary society is no longer determined by class, but rather by factors such as one’s job, intelligence, and education.

    In other words, elitism might still surround classical music, even if the status of its patrons are not necessarily determined by class.

    William Osborne

  110. rtanaka

    William, you may have overlooked this phrase in Goddard’s article, which echoes your statement:

    Status counts, not class. And status is defined by income not by culture.

    So income does matter after all. But everyone knew that already.

    Since it is a secondary source, the article that Frank posted has some problems with the interpretation of its data. Goddard makes claims which probably extend beyond the scope of the project (“There is no pop.”, yikes), and the above statement also tends to contradict itself with the other arguments made. This is also typical of the press who has a tendency to water down its output, but its research methods, demographics of its sample pool, and specific data are all left out — all of which are integral to understanding whether or not the study manages to point out a phenomenon that actually exists.

    What if the interviewees consisted of only graduate students of prestegious universities? The study would then be have to be limited to the scope of that particular demographic, but excluded in contexts outside of that bubble, which is a huge bubble. Without specifics, there’s no way to tell. I’d like to read a more detailed report if there is one available publicly.

    Interestingly enough this is the exact sort of thing I was talking about in bringing up Sokal earlier — humanities majors have a tendency to botch their interpretations of research data, and use them for purposes beyond the scope of its explanatory capabilities. So where does the integrity of the process lie? Are we content with a bunch of sounds and words strung together as long as it reinforces our ideological leanings?

  111. Somebody

    Concocted Status
    Well, if music is not comprehended by the audience, then the status of the musicians matters. How else would they feel like an audience? Like William says, the Higdon article does shine some light on this issue. Especially the bit about her Spacious Spruce Street Apartment (expensive living for those who don’t know) and her down home country experience with the fiddlers of Tennesse. But, her status is concocted or invented, so the status is replacing the value of tone and rhythm. Oh, did I mention tone and rhythm, sorry…

  112. Dean Rosenthal

    As an inspired Corey Dargel fan, I found this bit of stinging criticism only true:

    “It’s true that 90% of pop music is mediocre or worse. But so is 90% of classical music”

    Yikes. The competition out there is tough, but it’s not that tough.

    Corey, as an obscure but established musician, I can’t speak for you, a relatively recent mainstream success, but speaking for me, the violence of the thought you post to express adjustment is William Duckworth’s last refuge. Nico Muhly wrote music much less compelling.

    Try out your latest popsicle – just an observation – against a Wolf Parade tune by the name of “I’ll Believe in Anything”.

  113. daryl sprake

    If orchestras can not find a new contemporary repertoire that is emotionally compelling they will not have a future audience.people will not spend time and money on music that is emotional cold or just interesting.and the old music is limited in number and in most cases lacks the capacity to communicate to a modern listeners .
    The whole of the classical music world is sick,classical music is supposed to be edifying, yet for hundreds of years classical music has been part of a elitist snob system that has only degraded humanity.the sickness of classical music extends to all its institutions,classical music is a tribal snob system that includes both modernists and traditionalists,so much so that composers from outside the system like my self who can truely communicate to a wider audience can not get there music played .thus classical music is stagnant,a deep level change is needed.


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